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Get tough on crime without going broke


ANNAPOLIS -- Over the last 10 years, violent crime has increased by almost 40 percent in Maryland. We are less capable of keeping violent criminals off the streets, yet our inmate population has increased by more than 65 percent.

As a result, the prison system has been forced continually to operate over capacity, with severe overcrowding and correctional officials under threat of contempt by the federal courts. The situation is going to get worse, even if we spend a lot more money building a lot more prisons.

Thus the question facing all of us -- policy makers, law-enforcement officials and citizens -- is this: How do we get tough on crime, and get tough without bankrupting our state or taking money away from other vitally important areas such as the education of our children?

War on two fronts

We must talk both punishment and prevention. If we do not wage war on these dual fronts, crime will increase, not decrease, and the quality of our lives will decline. I believe we should consider the following proposals:

* Putting inmates to work. We should build on and expand inmate work programs we already have with the goal of having every able-bodied inmate in Maryland working productively. This would teach inmates job skills, discipline and self-esteem, thereby decreasing their chances of returning to crime upon release. It would eliminate both the perception and the reality that inmates sit around all day watching television. It would also harness the excess energy and aggression which lead to prison-management problems.

Finally, money generated or earned by inmates could be charged back for the costs of incarceration and used for victim restitution and child support.

In developing inmate work programs, we must be mindful of state and federal labor laws and potential effects on local businesses. Other states have been able to avoid these problems. For example, inmates in North Carolina grow more than 50 percent of the food they eat on prison work farms, and they have participated in much of the new prison construction in the state.

Inmates in other states do short-term community projects which otherwise would not get done, like painting schools, cleaning flooded park areas, ditches, tire dumps and roads. We could all benefit from such contributions to our communities, and those inmates who succeed in these programs would be better prepared for responsible jobs upon release.

* Truth-in-sentencing. We need to reconsider which criminals should fill our prisons and for how long. Our problem is this: While we may need more prisons, we will always have a finite number of prison beds. Many violent criminals are back on the streets before they should be. Many criminals serve only a fraction of their sentences. This pattern convinces offenders they can beat the system, while crime victims and the public lose confidence in their safety and in the system.

At the same time, the state and local governments spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year providing room, board and medical services to offenders who would be more effectively punished for far less money without overnight incarceration.

What we should think about, therefore, is developing a rational sentencing policy which 1) imposes punishment consistently, based on the seriousness of the crime and the offender's prior record, and 2) is linked directly to our prison capacity.

This approach would require deciding which offenders we want to make sure always go to prison, and which could be as effectively punished through intermediate and community-based sanctions. These alternative sanctions could include boot camps, home detention and local daytime detention centers with drug-treatment and education programs.

Such a policy would bring our system into balance. It would ensure beds for those we want to imprison. It would allow policy makers to project future prison needs and plan for them. It would require us to make certain we are able to pay as we go. Finally, it would bring truth to sentencing, giving both offenders and jTC victims an accurate picture of what the real consequences of crime will be. Our system would no longer be perceived as an overburdened revolving door.

* Prevention initiatives. Finally, we must alter the course of the youngsters currently destined to become part of our skyrocketing crime rate and overburdened justice system. Tragically, for some it is already too late. They have committed or will commit heinous crimes which are almost beyond our capacity to comprehend. We must find better ways of holding these juveniles accountable and separating them from their peers and future victims.

To save the children

We must at the same time, however, work harder to save those who are not yet beyond hope. We cannot lose yet another generation. Marshaling our resources and efforts for prevention programs is critical. It is the most effective way to save the children who will otherwise be lost. It is the most effective way to protect the people who will otherwise be victims of their future crimes. Finally, it is the most effective way to save the millions of dollars we will spend if these youth end up in the criminal-justice system.

Marylanders pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate criminal offenders. By contrast, it costs only a fraction of those dollars to provide training to parents of unruly teen-agers to teach them to control their kids. It costs only a fraction to institute family-violence, conflict-resolution, firearms and drug-education programs in the schools and to create school-based family resource centers. It costs only a fraction to provide mentoring and peer-mediation training.

Our war on crime will never be won by government alone, but by a combination of governmental and individual action. We need more partnership and cooperation between the public and private sectors. Crucial strengths that we must harness to defeat these problems lie in our neighborhoods -- in individual and community responsibility.

The public debate on crime must avoid the rhetoric of fear and defeatism and engage instead in serious discussion about effective policy changes. The stakes are too high for us to remain paralyzed. A fundamental ideal of American life has always been that we will live together as a diverse community. That goal will be forever beyond our reach if we fear our neighbors.

J. Joseph Curran Jr. is attorney general of Maryland.

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