- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fulfilled a longtime promise to Maryland residents yesterday by signed a bill creating a Cabinet-level disabilities department.

“Elevating the Office of Individuals with Disabilities to Cabinet-level status is a promise I made before taking office, and it is a promise I now keep,” said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican.

The bill is “most of all about freedom,” he told more than 100 people with disabilities before signing the 16-page bill into law. “Every [resident] in the state of Maryland gets the absolute level of freedom.”

The bill was one of almost 200 Mr. Ehrlich signed in a ceremony in Annapolis.

One bill, project RESTART, was created by the Ehrlich administration to reduce the state’s prison population by expanding drug-treatment options.

Another bill, sponsored by Delegate Neil Quinter, Howard Democrat, increases the penalty for video voyeurism from a maximum of six months in prison and a $1,000 fine to a maximum of one year imprisonment and $2,500 in fines.

Mr. Ehrlich also signed into law a bill to make lacrosse the state team sport.

The new disabilities office will be run by Kristen Cox, who has served in the Bush administration as a special assistant in the U.S. Department Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

“The real work begins now,” Mrs. Cox said. “Getting the department established was just the first step.”

C. David Ward, 57, of Phoenix, Md., chairman of the Maryland Disabilities Forum, began lobbying to create the department while Mr. Ehrlich was in Congress 12 years ago.

Mr. Ward said yesterday the department gives people with disabilities a “seat at the table.”

“People with disabilities need to have control and oversight,” said Mr. Ward, who has been in a wheelchair since he fell in 1977 and injured his spinal cord.

Robert A. Williams, 41, of Middle River, was paralyzed after being struck by a car in 1997 and was in a nursing home until two years ago.

“It is going to help me and a lot of other people,” he said.

The Department of Disabilities will oversee state agencies that primarily serve people with disabilities. The department will begin with a $1.1 million budget that includes money from the fiscal 2005 budget. The money will be used, in part, to hire five additional employees.

Mrs. Cox, who in July joined the Ehrlich administration as director of the state’s Office for Individuals with Disabilities, has vowed to clean up the state’s “fragmented” system, making the agency the first of its kind.

South Carolina has had a Department of Disabilities and Special Needs since the 1960s, and Texas has established a Department of Aging and Disabilities.

Mr. Ehrlich has said he became profoundly interested in helping people with disabilities as a congressman after a trip to the Maryland School for the Blind.

Project RESTART — an acronym for Re-entry, Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment — is a two-year pilot program in which teachers and drug- and alcohol-abuse counselors will help nonviolent prisoners who return to their communities after serving their sentences.

The state spends about $23,000 a year on each prisoner and is considering twin rehabilitation sites in prisons in Hagerstown and Westover. Administration officials expect the program to reduce the state’s 51 percent recidivism rate.

Under the new law, state’s attorneys can offer treatment instead of prosecution to nonviolent offenders with addiction problems, after an assessment by the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Judges also can place offenders directly into treatment programs and create an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council in each county.

All drug and alcohol treatment records would be expunged as long as the program is completed successfully.

“Hopefully, we can help these individuals to get back on the right track and become productive citizens and get jobs and pay taxes and help the state of Maryland,” said Mary Ann Saar, secretary of public safety and correctional services.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide