Politics & Policy

Martin O’Malley’s Empty Data

Maryland’s StateStat omits data that could shed light on the worst prison scandal in the state’s history.

Maryland governor Martin O’Malley’s possible bid for the presidency in 2016 took a significant blow last month following a federal indictment in which 13 state correctional officers are alleged to have assisted a criminal enterprise with tentacles reaching far outside the prison walls. Cell phones, drugs, and other contraband were apparently smuggled into the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center on a regular basis, enabling a jailhouse kingpin to essentially assume control of the facility.

This incident undermines what were previously seen as two key strengths in O’Malley’s public-service tenure, which kicked into high gear following his upstart bid for the Baltimore mayor’s office in 1999. As mayor, O’Malley went to great lengths to project a tough-on-crime image, ordering an arrest-first, ask-questions-later protocol intended to signal “zero tolerance.” The city of Baltimore settled out of court a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and the ACLU over this policy. The plaintiffs alleged that thousands of Baltimore residents had been arrested without probable cause. The city, as part of the settlement, agreed to end the policy, whose overreach was deemed a small price to pay for a politician’s burnishing of his anti-crime reputation en route to higher office.

O’Malley developed performance-monitoring tools in both city and state government, and for that accomplishment he received national press attention that promoted him as a hands-on, high-tech, results-oriented manager. In an early article intended to foster a national profile for O’Malley while he was still mayor, Esquire reported in 2002, in a day-in-the-life piece: “Hang on, the Blackberry’s buzzing. New homicide stats: Baltimore has fourteen fewer murders this August than last.” Reporters lapped it up — a young, dynamic Democratic mayor using a novel data-driven approach to stop crime.

The program the article is referring to is CitiStat, which became StateStat after O’Malley assumed the governorship in 2007. While CitiStat and StateStat may help to generate a story, they are just that — a story — and at no time has this been clearer than in the wake of the largest prison scandal in the state’s history. One of the ugly secrets about StateStat is that it’s a data dump intended to obfuscate metrics that really matter. For each department and agency that StateStat covers, observers will note a pile of meaningless statistics for items that should be measured in personnel records or relegated to the PowerPoint presentations that O’Malley likes to give reporters. This data noise ranges from employee sick leave to the number of jobs the government takes credit for creating. The result is that reporters who might actually contemplate looking under the hood of this program will find themselves poring through thousands of spreadsheets, government acronyms, marketing claims, and bureaucratic minutiae.

Here’s a number you won’t find on StateStat: Black Guerilla Family gang member Tavon White impregnated four prison guards, according to federal prosecutors. On an intercepted cell-phone call, White, who is awaiting trial on attempted murder charges, said, “This is my jail. You understand that? I’m dead serious. I make every final call in this jail.” As anyone familiar with how thugs operate in prison knows, a cell phone is the next best thing to having the key to the jail, enabling criminals to do everything from ordering hits on the street to acquiring contraband, which then becomes currency with which inmates can build their power base.

Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services boasts about “improving gang intelligence” and being “a leader in cell phone interdiction,” but the StateStat section for it lists no information about the number of cell-phone or other contraband seizures, if any, at the Baltimore facility. Instead, there are only notes from a March 2012 StateStat meeting that indicate a decrease — from eleven, in December 2011, to five in January 2012 — in cell-phone seizures at maximum-security facilities and say that cell-phone smuggling is “consistently pervasive” at pre-release facilities. The notes also report that monitoring cameras were installed “on the Eager St. side of BCDC” (Baltimore City Detention Center) to monitor “cell phones thrown over the wall.” The report also noted that seizures of cell phones throughout the pre-release system increased 160 percent from December 2011 to January 2012.  Obviously there is a problem with cell phones. A high seizure rate could mean that the problem is rampant or that the corrections department is doing its job, or both.

This raises an important question — why doesn’t StateStat break out cell-phone and other contraband seizures at the Baltimore City Detention Center, as it does for the other correctional facilities and the state prison system as a whole? It is unknown whether the data were ignored or removed because guards weren’t confiscating cell phones or because prison officials threw their hands up in defeat. Either way, the corrections department can’t claim to be a leader in cell-phone interdiction if it’s not counting how many are interdicted.

O’Malley constantly touts his data-driven approach to governing, as embodied in StateStat, because, to paraphrase Tavon White, he makes the final call on what goes on inside his data program. However, over the last few years, a series of legislative audits have revealed a raft of problems — a lack of accountability for the state’s speed-camera vendors, chronic cronyism, violations of procurement laws at the State Highway Administration, failure of the education department to conduct background checks for child-care workers, lack of monitoring of state tax credits by the Department of Business and Economic Development, failure of the labor department to inspect elevators, and millions of dollars in lost and overpaid funds at the Developmental Disabilities Administration.

These audits, conducted by objective, non-partisan legislative analysts, tell the real story of the O’Malley administration, not StateStat. The prison scandal tells us something else — that with StateStat, there is no there there. Perhaps the same could be said about an O’Malley presidency.

Mark Newgent blogs for Red Maryland. Jim Pettit is a Maryland public-policy consultant.


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