Please do not dump more lost souls on our streets

In USA, a successful transition from mass incarceration will be costly

To all the politicians, Republican and Democrat, who are currently experiencing an epiphany about this nation's world-leading incarceration rate, I make a modest request: Please don't start another round of deinstitutionalization without coughing up the money and services needed to avoid another human disaster on the streets of our cities and towns.

The last time that happened, things didn't work out so well.

When this country started a well-intentioned effort to end long-term institutionalization of the mentally ill and disabled, the promise of "community care" for those who had been shuttered in state psychiatric hospitals turned into a cruel joke. Federal funds for community mental health programs were greatly reduced during the Reagan years. Many of the severely mentally ill were discharged without a plan or a place to go. Deinstitutionalization contributed to the nation's growing ranks of homeless adults with mental illness. Increasing numbers of them ended up in jails and prisons.

We still see the results of a reform gone wrong. Anyone who cares to look can see it every day in Baltimore and in suburban areas — lost souls roaming the streets, living under bridges, panhandling on median strips, many of them talking to no one visible.

Now we're seeing bipartisan recognition of another social problem, the costly incarceration of an estimated 2.2 million inmates in our federal and state prisons and local detention centers, and politicians and police chiefs who — suddenly, it seems — want to do something about it.

"We're in a unique moment in which on a bipartisan basis, across the political spectrum, people are asking hard questions about our criminal justice system and how can we make it both smart, effective, just, fair," President Barack Obama said Thursday.

A day earlier, a coalition of 130 police chiefs, prosecutors and sheriffs from across the nation, including Baltimore's police commissioner, Kevin Davis, called for reforms to end the "unnecessary incarceration" of nonviolent offenders. And, with rare bipartisan support, the Senate took up legislation to give federal judges more discretion in sentencing low-level drug offenders.

"It is consistent with the momentum," says Michael Pinard, a University of Maryland law professor who has written about the consequences of mass incarceration. "The perspectives that are reflected in these efforts — the needs to narrow the numbers of individuals brought into the criminal justice system, to divert cases out of the system, to eliminate mandatory minimum [sentences], to provide alternatives to incarceration and to support individuals leaving the system — are consistent with what should always be the overarching missions of law enforcement and the criminal justice system: to enhance public safety."

In theory at least, billions saved on the prison end can go to education, health and other public services to reduce the numbers of Americans who end up committing crimes.

"The emerging consensus," Pinard says, "is that being smart on crime is more effective than the reflexive, short-sighted and misguided tough-on-crime approach, which has devastated individuals, families and communities."

So, all good.

But the politicians and police chiefs who are suddenly hot for reform need to be reminded of a hard fact: Transitions from the old, bad ways of doing things cost money.

No reforms to reduce the number of incarcerated Americans can be considered sustainable unless they fully prepare inmates for release. That means putting "corrections" back in the correctional system. Without getting convicts ready for a successful re-entry to free society — making sure they have job skills, that they have a place to live, that they have adequate health care — we'll just see the revolving doors of prisons jammed again. Or we'll see more homeless on our streets. We'll have more crime, too, because even the most determined ex-offender will revert to old ways if he's employable but can't find a job.

In Maryland, both Republicans and Democrats finally are coming together to look at sentencing policy, re-entry services and how the state supervises released prisoners through the parole and probation system. All good, and better late than never.

But studies are one thing; actually changing a system as entrenched as corrections is another, even in this supposedly progressive blue state. Less than a decade ago, under Maryland's last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, the General Assembly had a chance to move toward slowing down the revolving door, reducing the number of inmates in state prisons and, ultimately, saving taxpayers a load of money.

An initiative called RESTART involved intensive counseling, education, drug treatment and job preparation from the time an inmate arrived at an institution until he was released. The Ehrlich administration managed to get it established in two prisons. But when the Democratic-controlled General Assembly was asked to fund an expansion of the program to 30 institutions, it refused. (Democrats certainly didn't want a Republican taking credit for introducing such a holistic reform.)

But something like RESTART needs to be introduced. And it needs to be fully funded to be done right. Please don't dump more lost souls on our streets.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column runs Wednesday and Sunday. More commentary can be found on his blog, Roughly Speaking, on baltimoresun.com

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