Maryland public safety and corrections director Mary Ann Saar proposes to build two new jails, remake the way prisoners are tended and taught, and abandon or tear down the fortress known as Supermax, which 15 years ago was considered a new showpiece of get-tough incarceration, says the Baltimore Sun.
The Sun says Saar, 63, “seems to have mastered the art of solving big problems in the field of criminal justice, even in times of shrinking dollars.” She got a warm round of applause from the General Assembly last week when Gov. Robert Ehrlich invoked her name in his State of the State address.
She got the job by applying over the Internet in late 2002. She hoped to become secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, a job she held under Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer from 1991 to 1995. She held a similar post in the Maine Department of Corrections under independent Gov. Angus King.
As a Baltimore prosecutor in 1979, she pulled a .38-caliber handgun from a purse and took a shot at three robbers. She missed from close range, and her marksmanship briefly earned her the nickname “Annie Oakley.” But he became Maryland’s first female deputy state’s attorney.
In Maine, King asked her to reform the state’s juvenile detention system. It had one facility, a decrepit place where the upper floors had been condemned and practices were outmoded. “It was sort of Dickensian,” King said, adding, “She really led a complete makeover of our juvenile correctional system, both physical and programmatical, and now I believe we have one of the better systems in the country.”
In Maryland, Saar inherited an agency that was also “underfunded, morale was low, and facilities were under tremendous pressure,” said one official. She recruited a leadership staff and gathered it for a retreat. She counted on having four years to do the job – not out of political pessimism, but because that’s the way she has learned to operate in the realm of government. The staff quickly zeroed in on the biggest problem: a recidivism rate of about 50 percent within three years of release. With 14,000 prisoners released each year, that meant 7,000 future criminals hitting the streets.