Prison budget bills worth careful consideration

Shank, Hough seek to ease prison population in way that doesn't expose society to undue criminal risk

March 05, 2011
  • Rowland

In the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" '90s, a few lone voices in the wilderness asked lawmakers to consider the long-range consequences of legislation that was ultimately designed more for positive re-election campaigns than positive policy effects.

They didn't, of course. No one could see past the next election, so tough-on-crime initiatives such as "three strikes and you're out" and mandatory sentences, which took judging out of the hands of the judges, swept the nation.

It got so weird that in California, prison guards formed an effective lobbying coalition to pressure the legislature to pass tougher sentences — thus guaranteeing not just their own employment, but the need for more corrections officers down the road.

If imprisoning as much of the population as possible was the goal, the initiative was a remarkable success. In 2008 we hit a milestone: One out of every 100 Americans was behind bars.

The number of people now doing face time with a judicial institution is more than the populations of Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego and Dallas combined, according to the Pew trust.

In Maryland in 1982, one in 41 adults was in jail or on parole or probation. Today, it's one in 27. And it's costing taxpayers $3.3 million a day. Corrections eats up more than 8 percent of the state's general-fund budget.

At the same time, there has been a nationwide decrease in crime, which social scientists believe is at least partly attributable to the wholesale lockup. It's just that at somewhere along the line, these laws obviously stopped being cost effective.

Part of the public-employee malaise we've been watching in the Midwest is that these states, too, have such high prison costs. Our prison economics, to cite a term so in vogue today, are unsustainable.

As such, it should be a clarion call for all the lawmakers who gained office last fall promising massive cuts, without regard to sacred governmental cows — even cattle that have played such a large part in the conservative rodeo over the past two decades.

Enter Sen. Chris Shank, R-Washington, and Del. Michael Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, who have introduced legislation to ease the Maryland prison population in a way that doesn't expose society to undue criminal risk.

The legislation would essentially give released inmates more tools and incentives to succeed on the outside, while rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. Keep offenders likely to commit more crime in prison, while showing more leniency toward those who pose little risk.

The goal, Shank says, is to eat into two numbers: The $1.2 billion the state is spending on corrections, and the 50 percent recidivism rate, which means that of every two inmates released into society, one will be back.

Recidivism is as difficult to solve as it is to pronounce. Crime often becomes the only thing criminals know. With a criminal record, many have a hard time finding employers willing to give them a chance, especially in an economy where jobs are scarce.

Addiction is also a tremendous problem — my guess is that it's what got most of the inmates behind bars in the first place. With few jobs and many temptations, the streets become a terrible place to be without any meaningful support.

Shank and Hough's legislation also could deal with concerns of both the right and left: It might save taxpayers some serious money, while pursuing a course of action that is simply more humane. Many have been caught up in states' tough-crime laws, whether the harsh punishment fits or not. Some who should be in school on the outside are instead in "school" on the inside, learning how to become better, life-long criminals.

The state corrections department is opposing the bills, which state departments generally do if the idea for the initiative wasn't theirs to begin with. Bureaucrats don't like lawmakers pushing them around.

But these bills are worth a hard look. The costs associated with the pilot and tracking programs (the reason behind DOC's objections) might fit the adage that it takes money to make money. These administrative expenses would be dwarfed by the potential savings.

Other states have gotten into the act of addressing booming prison populations — even Texas, for heaven's sake. As we consider all aspects of all government spending, Shank and Hough are correct in thinking that our prison policy shouldn't get a free pass.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. Reach him by e-mail at

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