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Ehrlich's progressive new philosophy on prisons


AN OLD corrections boss marveled at the parade of sullen, chain-dragging offenders on furlough from the mean streets. They had gone through life without a moment of tough love, he thought. Prison was going to be their finishing school.

And he knew the grim truth: Prisons had no way to implant the missing civility. Polite rhetoric aside, the prison official's job was incarceration, not rehabilitation.

But most prisoners will get out of prison. Most will go back to the communities in which they offended.

In Maryland, 14,000 or so are released every year after serving at least a year in state prison. That means 8,400 or so ex-offenders come back to Baltimore every year. Many of them will be back in jail, 51 percent, according to Mary Ann Saar, the secretary of public safety and correctional services.

"They have no education, no place to live, and substance abuse issues," she told the state House Judiciary Committee last week. "What other outcome can we expect?"

She and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have higher expectations. If they reshape the prison system to give ex-offenders a chance on the outside, they will achieve something no other governor has managed or even tried.

Their RESTART (for Re-entry Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment) initiative will confront unaddressed problems that all but guarantee failure. (The rate is lower if the offenders are under supervision. Too many are not.)

Under RESTART, inmates will get case managers while they're in prison. They'll meet once a month instead of once a year, the current interval.

Mental health services (for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression) will be provided.

Ms. Saar told the committee that several approaches to rehabilitation, contrary to overly cynical popular belief, have been successful on a small scale in Maryland and in other states.

Education works. But Maryland prisons have waiting lists of 1,200 for academic programs and 600 for vocational training. Resources don't match demand, a sad loss of opportunity.

Substance abuse treatment is vital. More than 75 percent of inmates have substance abuse problems, many of them unaddressed. More than $4.1 million for drug treatment has been added to the community mental health budget, much of which will help ex-offenders.

Preparation of inmates for re-entry works.

RESTART will identify community resources and make sure the about-to-be-released inmates know where to go for help. For these men and women, obtaining an identification card at the Motor Vehicle Administration is more difficult in the age of terrorism and logistically overwhelming for someone without an automobile.

Under RESTART, the prison system will try something it calls "cognitive re-structuring" - changing the way people think about how they live their lives. Ms. Saar told legislators she hopes RESTART will serve as many as 9,800 inmates. The program will take at least three years to implement, she said. About $3.2 million has been made available for RESTART this year - less than the $9.2 million Ms. Saar estimates will be needed eventually. It sounds like a bargain.

RESTART will learn that Baltimore, in particular, already has a network of underfinanced re-entry programs struggling to help newly released inmates. The Ehrlich initiative can embrace, coordinate and strengthen the patchwork system already in place.

With so many inmates returning to the streets without a clue about how to stay out of prison, dealing with ex-offenders should be a growth industry. The governor's plan will give new hope to some promising groups already in the business - and to those back-enders who might save themselves, some of their friends and who knows how many of the rest of us.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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