The fireworks began after an advisory task forc recommended that a new county jail be built in Millersville. Outraged neighbors mobilized and the Anne Arundel County Council backed away from the site, recommending instead an addition to the existing Jennifer Road facility in Annapolis.
Lost in the tumult was the second, and some would say more important, part of the task force's charge: studying sentencing alternatives that would reduce inmate population.
In its written report to the county executive and council, the task force recommended implementing a "community corrections program." Such a system would try to solve problems that land a person in jail: drug and alcohol abuse, lack of job skills and education, an inability to deal with anger or personal problems.
Although they cost money at first, proponents say such programs ultimately are cost-effective because they reduce the number of people who return to jail -- and diminish the jail overcrowding problem.
"I would say there has been a growing trend in metropolitan counties doing community corrections for the past 20 years, and Anne Arundel County hasn't even started," said Nicholas Demos, who chaired the advisory task force. Mr. Demos is a former chief of the corrections unit in the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance, and now supervises alcohol and drug abuse demonstration programs at the Department of Health and Human Services.
County judges have only two extremes available to them during sentencing: incarceration in the detention center for those considered high-risk -- "the most expensive option you have," Mr. Demos said -- or probation, for those who commit minor offenses or are otherwise considered low-risk.
While in jail, the problems that resulted in incarceration are not adequately addressed, Mr. Demos said. The county detention center recently began a drug counseling program, but that is not enough.
"If you don't [address those problems], what you're doing is cycling people over and over again," Mr. Demos said. That means the jail population will continue to rise, leading to the need for more jails -- "which is OK if you have unlimited resources," he said.
The task force pointed to the community corrections program in Montgomery County as a model. The program provides inmates with intensive treatment while in custody as well as a four-step process emphasizing accountability and continuing treatment after release.
In the initial stage, inmates serve the first part of their sentence in the detention center. Because drug and alcohol abuse are epidemic among people convicted of crimes -- estimates show that between 70 percent and 80 percent of the county's detention center population has substance abuse problems -- Montgomery County screens every incoming inmate for substance abuse and makes referrals for those needing treatment.
Toward the end of the sentence, inmates are transferred to the county's prerelease center. There, they receive three to four months of intensive therapy addressing the problems that got them into trouble: drugs or alcohol, emotional problems,
anti-social behavior. During the day, inmates go to a job or attend classes, gradually being given greater freedom and greater accountability. By accepting increasing responsibility, the inmate earns his or her release from custody.
One plus for the prerelease center: state law provides for up to 100 percent financing for construction and operating costs.
The third phase is release into the community, which is when most inmates lose contact with the services they were provided while in jail. But Montgomery County's Community Accountability and Treatment Services program provides strict supervision of inmates after release. This program uses electronic monitoring to keep track of inmates and involves reporting each day to an intensive day treatment program, where the former inmate receives much of the same therapy as in the prerelease center.
In the final phase, inmates are released on probation.
Not everybody goes through all four steps, said Claire Gunster-Kirby, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County corrections department. Only those inmates with six months remaining on their sentence and who have no other serious charges pending are eligible for the prerelease center. Some bypass it and go directly into the day treatment program.
The Montgomery County program began in 1972. A 1980 study found that only 8 percent of the people who participated in the prerelease program went back to jail within a 2 1/2 -year period.
A more recent, but less comprehensive, survey indicated a recidivism rate of less than 15 percent. That compares with an average of 60 percent in most other jurisdictions. "So we still feel that the program is successful," Ms. Gunster-Kirby said.
The program may be effective in Montgomery County, but Mr. Demos said county officials are reluctant to consider such programs here.
"I think some members of the County Council are afraid of community corrections concepts because they don't understand them," Mr. Demos said. "They perceive a higher risk, when in fact there's a lower risk because of the higher supervision."
At least one council member who isn't afraid of the concept is Maureen Lamb, who was a member of the detention center task force and wants to push for these community corrections options.
"What I want to do is re-form the committee on an informal basis and bring together not only the committee but other people in the community who have expressed an interest in community corrections," said Mrs. Lamb, adding that the group's goal would be to "build up support for community corrections.
Detention center Superintendent Richard Baker said programs like those in Montgomery County can be effective, but they are also costly, labor-intensive and require lots of space.
"Any time you can break into the cycle and give [inmates] better skills, I think that's productive. But you have to be able to fund it and you have to be able to put it somewhere," Mr. Baker said. "And right now, I don't have the space at the existing facility. I'm just out of space."