Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Secretly Releasing Prisoners

originally published September 8, 2009

Governor Martin O’Malley has gone on record assuring citizens that releasing prisoners is not something he will do in response to the poor economy. (Unlike, say, California.) So my ears pricked up when I heard about a special project to release more prisoners.

I asked the Department of Public Safety—the state agency that oversees Maryland’s prisons and probation agents, among other things—to tell me about it. After first informing me that I was mistaken, a public affairs official then gave me some spin about how Public Safety and the Maryland Parole Commission were just doing a better job the past few years (after O’Malley’s election) applying existing law and regulations.

But on July 7 Kendall Gifford, the director of case management for the Division of Correction, informed prison staff that the Maryland Parole Commission was “undertaking a 60-90 day project to review a large number of predominantly non-violent offenders for release. Our Commissioner is dedicated to supporting that effort, and as a result we have 2 staff members on loan to the Commission for the duration of the project.”

There it is. A special project to release offenders. Why can’t governments just be straightforward and tell us what they are doing and why? Hiding and spinning projects like these just makes them look devious.

It strikes me as odd that the Maryland Parole Commission would, as Gifford implies, initiate the project. I’ll bet that the impetus comes from the top, from Secretary Gary Maynard’s office, and that the Parole Commission is just a willing partner. The commission’s chairman, David Blumberg, who is up for reappointment at the end of the year, has no problem exercising his parole powers to help Maryland prisons with “population control.”

In theory, I don’t either, if the powers are used thoughtfully, wisely, and independently of prison officials. But a 60-90 day special project? What for? That sounds like a hasty push to get criminals out the prison door. And anytime there’s a hasty push, we can expect thoughtfulness, wisdom and independent judgment to go out the door, too.

I asked Public Safety for details about who is being released. Not by name, but by crime and criminal background. I already have reason to believe that some violent offenders are being released. And others are being released who have yet to complete projects that are supposed to rehabilitate them, such as domestic violence programs for woman-beaters.

O’Malley claims to have a transparent administration. So how about it, Governor? Tell us what you are up to.

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