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A Sensible Jail Plan, At Last ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY


Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall is bragging about his "miracle" budget. But the real miracle is that someone managed to come up with a workable, flexible plan for a new detention center.

If completed as planned, the jail would eventually house 1,200 prisoners and cost $71 million. It would be a low-rise built -- and this is crucial -- in stages at the existing Jennifer Road jail site. This represents a major compromise on Mr. Neall's part. Not only had he wanted to build on 80 acres in Glen Burnie, he had legitimate objections to Jennifer Road. The site is tiny, and until last month, it appeared the only options were a dangerous, enormously expensive high-rise there, or more add-ons. Though County Council members who pushed for Jennifer Road last fall now are saying, "I told you so," they never came up with a decent way to expand, either; their idea was to add a patchwork of portables.

It was a Harrisburg, Pa., consultant who showed how to build a low-rise jail for less money than Mr. Neall had considered spending at a new site. But it is primarily the fact that the jail would be built in stages that allows us to support it.

Too many questions remain about long-term correctional needs for the county to commit to a huge, expensive jail. Are inmate projections accurate? Would wholesale reform of the corrections department, with creation of a minimum-security work release center, make a 1,200-bed jail unnecessary? With the phase-in, the county will have time to try to answer these. Meanwhile, the first stage will relieve overcrowding. Then, the county can evaluate whether to pursue the next stage or take a different route -- say, leaving phase one as a pre-sentencing center and building a separate facility for sentenced inmates serving short terms.

The only people likely to fight this plan are Annapolis leaders, and they may as well spare the effort. The council voted for Jennifer Road before anyone came up with a way to build a remotely workable facility there; it'll vote for it again. Besides, there have always been two good reasons for keeping the jail near Annapolis. It's close to the courthouse, and it's already there.

The city has been living with an overcrowded, dysfunctional detention center; a new, well-planned facility would have to be an improvement.

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