WASHINGTON – A Justice Department official told a meeting of lieutenant governors Wednesday they should look to two Maryland crime prevention programs as innovators in the national fight against prison overcrowding.
But Maryland officials, while welcoming the praise, said the “HotSpot” anti-crime and “Break the Cycle” drug intervention programs are not primarily aimed at reducing prison populations. They are aimed at reducing crime.
“HotSpots is purely an enforcement action. It’s not meant to take any pressure off of the prison system,” said Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
“Break the Cycle may be a godsend in terms of keeping people out of prison … if it works … and that’s a big if,” Sipes said.
Jeremy Travis, director of the National Institute of Justice, told the lieutenant governors that money used to jail criminals could be better used on preventive programs like Maryland’s.
“There is a trend upward in incarceration and expenditure levels … and the taxpayers pay for it,” Travis said. “Maryland’s HotSpot program is unique to the states. … It allows resources to be used for other concerns.”
The HotSpot Communities Initiative — a three-year program introduced in 1997 — provides extra state and local funding for police officers, probation agents and programs in 36 communities identified as high-crime areas.
“Breaking the Cycle,” which began in October, requires that certain offenders undergo drug testing and treatment following their release from prison.
Both programs were part of a crime-fighting strategy championed by Gov. Parris Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
But Faye Taxman, an associate researcher at the University of Maryland who has studied the programs, said they are not geared toward solving prison overcrowding, even if they work to keep people out of jail.
“They’re reforms of the existing system,” said Taxman. “They’re meant to make the system work better — they’re not an alternative to incarceration.”
Sipes said that Maryland’s overall policy has been to keep violent offenders in prison as long as possible — despite overcrowding — and to use alternatives like home detention for non-violent offenders.
State facilities meant to hold 13,000 inmates currently house 22,000, according to David Towers, a spokesman for the Maryland Division of Corrections.
The impact of HotSpots and Break the Cycle on those numbers is not currently apparent, but some say it will be obvious in the future.
“It’s a major part of the solution, and that’s the key: a part,” said Sheldon Greenberg, director of the Police Executive Leadership Program at Johns Hopkins University.
“If you can establish an area where it’s more difficult to commit a crime, then you don’t have to worry about sentencing and corrections,” Greenberg said. “That’s just logic.”
Townsend said that HotSpots and Break the Cycle are just part of an overall crime-fighting plan, which included scaling back the number of prisoners.
“My solution to prison overcrowding is to reduce the number of prisoners and crime,” she said.
Greenberg said the preventive approach forces law enforcement officers to think about long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. The only significant drawback of that approach, he said, is that the funding may dry up before progress is made.
“In a lot of places in the past, the problem-solving stopped when the money stopped,” he said.
Bills to expand both programs are currently being considered in the legislature.