MARYLAND'S CORRECTIONS system continues to be in an awful jam. Last August, two federal judges reached similar disturbing conclusions about conditions in the Maryland House of Correction and the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore -- namely, that overcrowding there represented cruel and unusual punishment. The rulings ordered the state to remove 1,000 inmates by April 1, 1979, and to start by removing 100 inmates from each of the institutions by last Saturday. But officials blew that deadline; and are awaiting a ruling on their appeal. So, while the lawyers argue and wait, the jam behind Maryland's bars continues. Something's got to give -- and fast.
Attorney General Francis Burch previously has said that meeting the deadlines would pose "a substantial threat to public safety." That has been the stock answer for years -- an agonizingly familiar one in this area, where the District of Columbia government spent years in court lamely defending the same kind of horrible overcrowding and appealing everything. True, the pressures on the prison system have been acute. The number of convictions and the lengths of sentences have been increasing faster than the corrections capacity. Plans for new facilities have been hit by the familiar "anywhere-but-here" local resistance. Also, many people whose cases should have been treated in other ways -- work-release programs, paroles, halfway houses and other arrangements -- are still being packed into prisons; as a result, some violent offenders may have been let free because judges have become increasingly reluctant to aggravate conditions of overcrowding.
In a report to the court last Friday, Maryland officials said they had reduced the penitentiary population by 69 inmates and the House of Corrections roster by 49. But as judges keep noting in these cases, there can be no excuses for cruel and unusual punishment in the incarceration of human beings. If it takes emergency measures by state officials, judges and the state legislature, so be it. Problems of corrections departments may not rank high on the political agendas of politicans or their constituents, but Gov.-elect Harry Hughes and Attorney General-elect Stephen Sachs should recognize the urgent need for faster relief -- not only for reasons of humanity, but also because so many of those who are crammed into prisons will return to the streets more embittered and threatening than before.