Cause for ex-offenders crosses party lines

Mary Ann Saar, Maryland's public safety secretary, said it again last week at a breakfast honoring both ex-offenders who find their way into the mainstream working world and the companies that have the guts to hire them: "This is not a liberal issue. This is not a conservative issue. This is not a Republican issue. It is not a Democratic issue. This is a common-sense issue that will serve all of us."

The issue is corrections reform: putting corrections back into corrections after decades of mindlessly warehousing criminals - particularly, nonviolent offenders and drug addicts - at great expense. In Maryland, we continue to abide a recidivism rate of more than 50 percent, and this failure costs us about $24,000 per inmate per year.

Spending on state prisons alone increased nationally from $9 billion in 1982 to $60 billion in 2002, according to the Council of State Governments. We've had a costly war on drugs since the Reagan administration, and now the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world to show for it.

Anyone - Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal - can see that this system is broken.

But in this state, it's a Republican who has made a fix a priority.

Saar's boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is bullish on prison reforms that would lead to a new kind of environment for nonviolent offenders, one that prepares them for a successful return to society instead of the revolving door we have now. The state's recidivism rate - 51 percent of released inmates returning to the Department of Corrections within three years - is intolerable, Ehrlich says, "and addiction drives it."

Drug addiction, Ehrlich has said, "is the central cause of so many problems in our society." It "sentences people to a life of poverty and failure."

The governor has expressed these sentiments several times in public. He's said the nation's drug epidemic is a medical problem, and that we should have been treating the demand for heroin and cocaine instead of trying to arrest our way out of the problem - contrary to Republican leadership thinking since the mid-1980s.

"It's counterintuitive for a Republican to have these views," Ehrlich has said, "but they have been my views all the time."

His lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, has also chimed in on the subject, challenging business owners to give ex-offenders a chance by putting them to work.

Under Saar's leadership, the Ehrlich's administration put in place a progressive program called RESTART (Re-entry Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment), which focuses on helping inmates have a more successful return to society, providing more intensive counseling, education, drug treatment and job preparation.

Unfortunately, the program has been limited to only two prisons so far. Saar wanted it in place in all 30 of the state's institutions by now. The Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly refused to fund an expansion of the program, and state employees groused that the administration wanted to turn corrections officers into social workers. That wasn't the case, says Saar. The prisons would remain secure as RESTART expanded.

"There's no question that if I didn't have an R by my name, we would have had this in place by now," says Ehrlich, who pledged in a recent interview to continue to push for RESTART and provide more funding for drug treatment in prisons.

Actually, it's not clear that a Democrat would have set this course. Under the two previous governors, William Donald Schaefer and Parris N. Glendening, prison space in Maryland expanded, rehabilitative services were limited and Glendening became an advocate for "life means life" in sentences - refusing parole for all lifers except for the elderly and dying.

Baltimore is clearly the Maryland jurisdiction most affected by drug addiction, the violent drug trade and the need to rehabilitate criminals. The prison system returns between 6,000 and 9,000 offenders to the city alone each year.

Where's Martin O'Malley on this? His administration created the Ex-Offender Initiative, part of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, and in July the MOED opened a re-entry center in Mondawmin Mall. It is one of just a handful of agencies in the region working to get ex-offenders employed and into the mainstream.

O'Malley was elected on promises to reduce violent crime and clean up drug corners throughout the city. While his police department went through four commissioners, it mainly stuck to that mission, increasing arrests and conducting hundreds of sweeps for guns, drugs and drug dealers.

At the same time, however, O'Malley was demanding and securing badly needed state funds for drug treatment in the city. His former health commissioner, Peter Beilenson, put it to good use. By 2003, publicly funded drug treatment reached more than 25,000 people. (Funding, the bulk of it from the state, has fallen since then, and Maryland judges, among others, have been critical of the lack of resources for defendants who need treatment.)

O'Malley says he supports treatment over incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders, and he believes re-entry programs need to be expanded without risking security in prisons. He also sees a cost-effective promise in buprenorphine, a new drug prescribed by doctors in the treatment of heroin addiction. In 2006, the city will ask the state for an additional $5 million and the federal government for $3 million for treatment, to push total funding above the 2003 level of $53 million.

O'Malley's opponent in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, shares O'Malley's views about re-entry, and believes a better prerelease system in Maryland will cut recidivism.

In the Montgomery County Detention Center, Duncan says, every inmate is screened for personal needs - drug treatment, education, housing, employment, psychiatric counseling - and they go through a phased-in re-entry process. Duncan thinks the progressive Montgomery system could be a model for a reform in the state system. "It's clearly got to be a priority," he says.

We shall see. We shall be listening.