MARYLAND'S prison population pushed past 23,000 last week, making it one of the nation's largest systems. Its walls confine more lifers than all but 11 states; it ranks 9th overall in time served.
So this state pushes criminals into cells with the best of them. As always, though, the pace of incarceration and cell capacity don't always match.
More and more difficult individuals are placed on probation and parole or their sentences are suspended, diverting them to something the corrections types call "community supervision."
This can mean home detention. But more often it means probation and parole. The supervisors of those programs often labor with impossibly large caseloads -- 100 or more each. No one could do a decent job of supervising that many difficult people -- even before the very nature of the population changed so alarmingly.
Between 1990 and 1997, corrections department figures show, the number of violent offenders in prison increased 50 percent nationally -- 65 percent in Maryland. It follows that more offenders with violent potential are being maintained outside the prison walls.
That's why the General Assembly's recent approval of 41 more probation officers for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was so critical. Construction of a new maximum security wing in Cumberland is underway and $26 million to complete that project was also approved by the lawmakers.
But the infusion of help for probation and parole officers may be even more important. More and more often, these professionals must be armed and flak-jacketed law enforcement officers, operating on the street.
Morale in this increasingly important part of the corrections system should also be improved by the legislature's decision to grant a two-step pay increase, bringing annual pay for parole officers from a pitifully low $23,377 to a still insufficient $28,719 when the second of raises occurs next year.