Gov. Larry Hogan's administration is in the midst of a joint effort with lawmakers to find ways to reduce the costs of incarceration by making investments in programs that keep people out of prison, but it doesn't need to look far for an example of how such an arrangement can work. The Public Safety Compact has been doing just that for the last seven years, helping hundreds of offenders from Baltimore be released from prison early, provided they participate in a wide array of drug and alcohol treatment, mental health, employment and other programs. It has saved the state money, and it has kept the vast majority of its participants from landing back in prison. It is, Corrections Secretary Stephen Moyer said at a recent Board of Public Works meeting, "a good program."
Yet, for reasons that are not altogether convincing, Secretary Moyer killed it. When he came into office, he has said, he discovered that the original memorandum of understanding between the state and the Baltimore-based Safe and Sound Campaign, which administers the compact, was not done in accordance with state procurement law. That is an eminently fixable problem — indeed, Mr. Moyer did fix it. In August, he persuaded the Board of Public Works to approve the arrangement as a sole-source contract rather than a memorandum of understanding — but only through Oct. 31. The compact's executive director, Kate Wolfson, asked that the contract extend through the end of fiscal 2016, as the memorandum of understanding would have, but Mr. Moyer declined, casting a shadow over the fate of the 140 people presently released from prison into the program, not to mention the 51 who were in the pipeline for possible release.
In Mr. Moyer's presentation to the board and in documentation his department provided in support of it, he suggests that the compact isn't cost effective. That's a dubious contention.
Here's how the compact works. When potentially eligible Baltimore inmates arrive in prison, they are screened to determine their suitability for the compact. While behind bars, they typically receive substance abuse treatment, and if the Parole Commission agrees to release them early, they are assigned case managers who work with them on housing, employment, health insurance and other things they will need upon release. When they're out, they get intensive services and, where necessary, cash assistance for things like transportation to jobs.
It works. Officials estimate the three-year recidivism rate for graduates is between 6.5 percent and 9 percent, compared with the state-wide average of 40.5 percent.
The compact was funded initially through seed money from foundations, and subsequently by the state on the premise that it would save money, and overall, it has. The state calculates the savings based on the cost of meals, laundry, medical services and similar expenses it isn't incurring for participants who are out of prison under the compact. It doesn't count at all overhead costs for the prisons or correctional officer salaries, nor does it seek to figure out the savings from lower recidivism. And under that conservative rubric, the state has seen net savings — that is, after paying the program's expenses — of $770,000.
The corrections department contends that the program has lost money in the last couple of years, though that conclusion is inextricably entwined with how the department calculates the per diem rate, which it at one point revised downward. And in any case, the supposed losses are quite small — just $3,000 in one year and $19,200 in another. Mr. Moyer also raised concern during the Board of Public Works meeting that the administrative expenses have grown too large, though officials at Safe and Sound dispute that.
The corrections department plans to issue a request for proposals for a similar program, and there is nothing wrong with that. But what doesn't make sense is its determination to shut down the Public Safety Compact in the meantime. The department insists that it will provide the same services to the 140 people presently in the community under the compact that they otherwise would have gotten, but if the state is really capable of that, why is its recidivism rate 40.5 percent instead of 9 percent?
By all means, the state should correct any faults with the way this program was set up, and it should determine whether some organization can achieve the same or better results for cheaper. But until then, there is no good reason — legal or otherwise — not to keep the present program in place.