Seems we've finally found the cure for "git tuff on crime" syndrome: Massive state budget shortfalls.
Fourteen years ago, Maryland opened its ultramodern Supermax prison, a high-tech fortress to hold the "worst of the worst."
In contrast, a few blocks away stood the Maryland Penitentiary, a dark, gothic, castle-like structure built nearly 200 years ago when inmates were supposed to contemplate their sins in solitude and disgrace.
But when Mary Ann Saar, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, recently described a Maryland institution as so out of step with modern correctional philosophy that it ought to be razed, she was talking about Supermax.
"First of all, it's inhumane. Second, it has no program space," she said. "Nor can it be converted. It was built so hard, we can't change anything. We're talking about tons and tons of concrete and steel that would cost a fortune to dig into."
That kind of talk represents a dramatic change in thinking among corrections officials across the country. Squeezed by shrinking budgets and burgeoning numbers of inmates, states are moving away from the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude of the 1980s and '90s and focusing more on drug and alcohol treatment, education and job training.
Saar describes Supermax as a relic of an era when rehabilitation programs behind bars were dismissed as coddling of criminals.
"In the 1980s, we began putting people away for a longer period of time, giving them less opportunities for drug treatment and education, and we abolished parole," said Saar, appointed by new Gov. Robert Ehrlich last January. "But, hey, has it worked? I think an honest person would have to say it hasn't worked."
Even Alabama, one of the most conservative states, now has a sentencing commission that has made reform recommendations, which the Legislature has begun to enact this year.
"I've been in the attorney general's office 30 years," said Rosa Davis, the chief assistant attorney general in Alabama, "and we've been the 'lock them up and throw away the key' office. We're now learning the difference between being tough on crime and smart on crime."