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Maryland prison program saves money and lives

We have a great capacity for placing people into categories and minimizing their humanity. One such category is "felons" and another is "drug addicts." We can easily forget that men and women who have been convicted of crimes or are suffering from substance abuse issues are the same as the rest of us at the core — fallible but resolutely hopeful.

Here in Baltimore, a celebration of that capacity for hope and a reminder that redemption comes in many forms took place earlier this year in a small chapel within a church on Cathedral Street. This was not a wedding or religious service. Rather, it was the graduation ceremony for the Public Safety Compact (PSC) participants, an innovative government program that provides positive opportunities to inmates. The 61 men and one woman who graduated had been convicted of felonies and sentenced to years in prison. While on the inside, they joined in the PSC program, which gave them an opportunity to reduce years from their sentences on the condition that they complete comprehensive substance abuse and other treatment.

While I have always put some thought into the value of drug and alcohol treatment, watching the PSC graduates — in caps and gowns — choking up as they thanked the parole officers who saw them through their treatment and early release was a visceral experience. There is an intimacy in witnessing the reactions of men, who, having spent years in prison, are now sober, out of prison and able to enjoy the company of family and neighbors.

I sat in the audience admiring the courage of the graduates and thinking of my father, who has devoted his life to helping those with substance abuse issues. He did so from the perspective of a scientist armed with a Ph.D. in pharmacology who served as a director of a division of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He studied and facilitated the development of drug addiction mediations that are utilized in treatment programs across the country.

During my childhood, as the war on drugs amped up, I envisioned my father as a federal drug agent busting the bad guys. I was wrong. Instead of locking up those with drug dependency and abuse issues, he was working to break the cycle of substance abuse and the harm it causes. I now understand that treatment programs are vital to providing better outcomes for a great number of people — many here in Baltimore.

Indeed, there is growing resistance to the idea that staggering rates of African-Americans and Latinos must be locked away and labeled felons for nonviolent drug crimes. (Witness that Maryland's Senate this year passed a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.) It takes courage from people inside and outside government to push for realistic drug laws and to promote rehabilitation over punishment for drug offenders.

Here in Maryland, the PSC program allows prisoners to complete in-prison drug and mental health treatment in exchange for conditional parole and treatment opportunities available outside the fence. To be eligible for program, the participants must undergo months of treatment within prison and serve at least 25 percent of their sentence. The Public Safety Compact itself is an agreement between private nonprofit organizations (led by the Safe and Sound Campaign) and the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Its goal is to improve the lives of the participants through drug treatment and other therapy, all the while saving the public fisc by shortening prison sentences and lowering recidivism rates.

The PSC program is working. The Safe and Sound Campaign reports that the program has saved the state over $850,000 by reducing prison stays for scores of participants since 2010. Each avoided incarceration saves the state $14.25 per person, per day in hard costs: food, laundry, medical and pharmaceutical costs. The savings then are reinvested to sustain the PSC treatment programs.

Further, the Safe and Sound Campaign has tracked the recidivism rates of those participating in the PSC and found a 12 percent recidivism rate so far, compared to a 43.3 percent overall recidivism rate reported by the Department of Public Safety secretary's End of Year Report for fiscal 2012. Lower recidivism rates not only signal that PSC graduates are benefiting from the treatment/rehabilitation model but are also a positive sign for the families and communities that will benefit from having the graduates back in their lives. Finally, PSC allows the state to save the hard costs of incarceration as well as funds spent re-arresting, retrying and re-incarcerating repeat offenders. These are hopeful results for all of us.

Matthew T. Vocci is an attorney at a downtown law firm. His email is mtvocci@ober.com.

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