ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers are ready to release their hold on funding needed for a program to rehabilitate repeat non-violent offenders at two state correctional institutions.
The initiative is an important component of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s “five pillars” — his top five priorities for the state, which include public safety improvements.
The rehabilitation project that will combine education, counseling, drug abuse treatment and vocational skills training is called Reentry Enforcement Services Targeting Addictions, Rehabilitation and Treatment, or RESTART.
Although $1.2 million was earmarked for it in the state’s budget in April, release of the funds has been stymied by lawmakers who said details on the project’s spending were not specific enough.
The state corrections department, which will manage RESTART, answered questions before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing Sept. 8.
At the end of the hearing, joint committee members said a smaller work group might be created to further discuss RESTART.
Though Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, said that a work group was still part of the plan, he insisted the project is on course.
“RESTART is going to happen,” the Senate Budget and Taxation chairman said Wednesday, speculating the funds will be released within the next few weeks.
Mary Ann Saar, secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said RESTART could be in full service as soon as January, once 52 drug abuse treatment counselors are hired.
Even though plans for running RESTART at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown and the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup are in place, Saar was careful not to get ahead of herself.
She said no aspect of RESTART can begin until the department gets notification in writing from the General Assembly.
The crux of RESTART is reducing recidivism.
More than 51 percent of ex-offenders in Maryland return to the system within three years, said Mark Vernarelli, a corrections spokesman.
“That rate is entirely too high. It is a major motivating factor behind RESTART,” he said.
It costs the state $23,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner. Maximum security nearly doubles the cost. Parole and probation options can reduce these costs by more than 90 percent, Vernarelli said.
Proponents of RESTART say it will save the state money in the long run if it successfully rehabilitates nonviolent offenders. To do so will take more than just dollars and cents.
The idea is that RESTART will create “a cultural change” throughout correctional services from the top level down to the correctional officers and on to the offenders and their families, said Richard Rosenblatt, assistant secretary of treatment services for the corrections department.
Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, said changing attitudes was absolutely necessary and called RESTART a “novel, innovative approach.”
She asked that details not be sugarcoated and requested that the department keep the Legislature informed as to how RESTART deals with the issue of gang members in correctional facilities and their control of drugs inside.
Joint committee members said the corrections department will be required to give regular reports on RESTART’s progress.
RESTART is not without its skeptics.
Sheila Hill a corrections officer of 16 years and a chairwoman of the correctional officers’ labor union testified last week that RESTART will not be able to change attitudes among correctional officers unless safety improves first. Hill said that inadequate staffing at correctional facilities has left officers vulnerable to assaults by inmates.