IT’S BEEN nearly a year since Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein exposed a shocking scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center, involving a virtual takeover of the facility by a violent inmate gang and corrupt correctional officers. The charges included massive smuggling of drugs, debit cards and cellphones and sexual relationships between female correctional officers and gang members; four guards even bore gang leader Tavon White’s children. Mr. Rosenstein has secured 44 indictments, including 27 against corrections officers. Eighteen, including 11 correctional officers , have pleaded guilty.
Criminal prosecutions, while necessary to prevent a repetition of this episode, are not sufficient. Last year, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) convened a joint commission of state senators and delegates to consider legislative reforms. Now the General Assembly is working on several bills to put the panel’s recommendations into law. For example, on March 3, the Senate voted unanimously to allow the emergency 90-day suspension, without pay, of correctional officers who are suspected of smuggling contraband — specifically including “telecommunications” devices — to inmates. The same measure also increased the penalties for correctional officers and inmates involved in cellphone smuggling.
The most contentious issue raised by the jail scandal was the role of a 2010 law known as the “correctional officers’ bill of rights ” (COBR). FBI wiretaps and agent affidavits in the case showed that corrupt guards at the Baltimore jail felt enabled by the elaborate procedural protections against administrative discipline in the law, an election-year project of Mr. O’Malley and a political ally, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents correctional officers.
Though the commission essentially ducked that question, Mr. O’Malley’s administration has, to its credit, introduced a bill that would at least partially restore the management prerogatives COBR unwisely ceded. The measure would permit prison officials to waive the usual 90-day limit on disciplinary investigations in cases involving alleged criminal conduct by a correctional officer. COBR required authorities to either bring charges or close the investigation after 90 days, whether the offense in question was criminal or administrative. Last week, the House of Delegates adopted the new rule unanimously.
We would have liked to see the investigative period extended to one year, which is the period state law prescribes for allegations of police misconduct. But if, as expected, the new law passes the Senate, it could be a step in the right direction, and a welcome, if belated, recognition that COBR had tipped the balance of power within the prison hierarchy too far in favor of officers and their union.