That's solving the unemployment problem the hard way.
Not to mention the expensive way. The projected Maryland Public Safety and Corrections budget for 2009 is $1.3 billion, up more than 9 percent, which reflects the opening of more prison housing, more staff and increasing medical costs.
Longer sentences mean that more people are growing old behind bars - the number of inmates in America over the age of 50 increased from 41,586 in 1992 to 113,358 in 2001. By 2010, it's projected that one in three federal inmates will be eligible for membership in the AARP.
Of course, anyone who has ever aged can tell you about the increased medical expenses - expenses that taxpayers must foot the bill for. Pew estimates that prison care for an aging inmate costs three times as much as for the younger prisoners, meaning that as the inmate population gets older, costs will increase exponentially.
And the prison bills are already considerable. According to Pew, states spent $10.6 billion of their discretionary funding on corrections in 1987. By last year, that figure had risen to $44 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that's a 127 percent increase - and during the same time period, adjusted spending for education rose just 21 percent.
For those who believe our school systems have grown too rich, this might be an indication that there are other areas in greater need of reform.
According to Pew, Maryland has 400 more inmates now than it did two years ago. And an average annual inmate cost of $24,000, that's a way to rack up $10 million in a hurry.
Every elected official who thinks knows this: These numbers are unsustainable without sizable budget and tax increases. And they are not sustainable from a social standpoint. Since the '90s, nonviolent offenders have been locked up next to more serious offenders, where they learn to be gang members, animals and thugs. We're taking people who probably could be reformed and guaranteeing that they can't.
So, quietly, we have to put behind us the political, tough-on-crime pandering of last decade and bring some sanity to sentencing. Texas, of all states, is leading the charge - there, they are finding out it's possible to be tough on the criminals that call for toughness, but easier on the nonviolent offenders.
Community supervision, creative sentencing and technology are combining to free up prison cells for the criminals who truly deserve them.
In Maryland, lawmakers would do well to pay serious attention to an excellent bill introduced by Del. Chris Shank that would track those charged with domestic abuse by GPS. An abuser who was told by the courts to stay away from a woman would be nabbed if he tried to get too close. Forget prison beds; how many lives could this potentially save?
And in Jefferson County, W.Va., this week, another progressive move was afoot. Echoing a move in Franklin County, Pa., Jefferson County Commissioners said they are considering a "day report center" that would closely track nonviolent offenders, but spare them from a stint behind bars.
These centers offer GED opportunities, anger-management classes and drug/alcohol counseling. The savings to taxpayers is obvious, not only because of reduced prison costs, but also because the offenders can continue to hold jobs - paying tax money instead of soaking it up.
And this isn't to mention the humane element. Put people in a positive atmosphere and you will likely see positive results; put people in a negative atmosphere and they'll only learn how to be better, tougher criminals.
The tough-on-crime movement of the '90s made people feel good and it was loved by politicians who won votes by treating a hopelessly complex situation with a simple, vote-winning slogan. So we took sentencing out of the hands of judges and locked up anyone with an ounce and a pulse.
Now we're paying the price. We went out to bag a few murderers and rapists, and instead caught a mountain of petty scofflaws. It should be a lesson the next time we think that a difficult social problem can be cured with a catchphrase.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.