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Editorial - Prisons on a discount

October 21, 1997

Some officials caution that it's tough to draw hard conclusions about a program that's only been in operation for three years, but a study by a national non-profit group strongly suggests Maryland's Department of Corrections has latched onto a winner. Keeping non-violent inmates out of traditional prisons is not only cheaper, but there's only half the chance they'll commit new crimes after their release.

The study, conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, looked at the state's Corrections Options Program, which runs home-detention systems, drug-abuse rehabilitation and military-style "boot camps" for first offenders.

The NCCD study found that of the 2,000-plus offenders who participated in such programs annually over the past three years, only 4.3 percent committed a new crime in the first year after their release. That's compared to 8.7 percent of those inmates incarcerated in traditional prisons.

The program is also cheaper - $4,100 per inmate annually for those involved in alternative sentencing programs, versus $18,000 per inmate for those in old-style prisons. Multiply the savings - about $14,000 per inmate - times the 2,000 inmates who've been involved in the program each year, and the savings run into millions of dollars.

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Prison officials told The Associated Press that without the program, another prison would have been needed - at a cost of $50 million, with an annual operating budget of $12.8 million!

Now here's a reality check: Inmates enrolled in alternative-sentencing programs got into them because they were non-violent and less likely to commit crimes again. The key thing proven so far is that the state's screening process makes sense.

What the state needs to study now is whether it can save even more money by "graduating" non-violent inmates now in traditional prisons into alternative programs, freeing up spaces for violent offenders. In a state where the prison population has jumped by 70 percent in eight years, we need to concentrate all available resources on keeping those who would destroy society safely separate from law-abiding citizens.

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