Going where few will tread

Sun Staff

Three governors have now handed big, unruly messes to Mary Ann Saar. One was a Democrat, one was an independent, and the latest is a Republican.

For her current boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Saar proposes to do no less than build two new jails, remake the way prisoners are tended and taught, and abandon or tear down the fortress known as Supermax, which a mere 15 years ago was considered a sparkling new showpiece of get-tough incarceration.

All in a term's work, perhaps, for a woman who seems to have mastered the art of solving big problems in the field of criminal justice, even in times of shrinking dollars. Which may explain why Saar, 63, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, got such a warm round of applause from the General Assembly last week when Ehrlich invoked her name during his State of the State address, amid an otherwise mixed reception.

"Probably everyone in the legislature came to their feet," said Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick. "I think that's a testament to her abilities."

Not bad for someone who got her Cabinet job by applying over the Internet in late 2002. At the time she was hoping to become secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, a job she held under Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer from 1991 to 1995. She later held a similar post in the Maine Department of Corrections, as associate commissioner of juvenile services under independent Gov. Angus King, commuting by plane for six years. Then she went to work as the state director for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

But when days passed without an answer to her application to the Ehrlich administration, Saar said, "I figured, OK, that's it. Then one Friday I got a call from Paul Schurick, who I'd known from the Schaefer administration." The juvenile services job was filled, he told her, but would she be interested in public safety?

"Sure," she answered.

A few weeks later, just as she was beginning to think she had again dropped out of contention, she was summoned to the governor's office. "And instead of what I expected, which would have been, 'All right, Mary Ann, what's your vision if you were to have this job, etc., etc.,' it wasn't like that at all, much to my delight. He said, 'Look, I've been looking at this, and I've gone around, and here are what I think the issues and problems are,' and then he said, 'Do you want the job?' And I said, 'Well, sure.'"

Her confirmation was nearly as smooth, but that was perhaps the last time things were to be so easy, which seems to be fine with Saar.

"We're used to being beaten upon all the time" in corrections, she said. "We are much more comfortable in that environment than in the praise environment."

Her previous employers would attest to that. So would the three would-be robbers who fled in 1979 after she pulled a .38-caliber handgun from a purse and took a shot at them, back when she was a Baltimore prosecutor. She missed from close range, and her marksmanship briefly earned her the nickname "Annie Oakley." But her aim in the courtroom was true, earning her the distinction of being Maryland's first female deputy state's attorney.

Later, she took a job with then-Mayor Schaefer, and by working for him and Mikulski she has endured two of the state's most demanding bosses, while professing to enjoy it - and also to learn from it.

"[Schaefer] would say, 'Well, I want this stuff done by tomorrow morning.' And I'd say, 'But that's so much, I can't do it!' He'd look me in the eye - you know how he is - 'Do it!' And you know what? I did it. And once you've done it, you've just broadened your horizons."

Schaefer, now the state comptroller, recalls such moments, but minus her initial uncertainty, saying, "All I had to say was, 'Do this,' and she did it. ... She's smart, she's involved, she's loyal. She's no pussyfoot - she's very tough - but she has great compassion. She has a vision for the future, she knows what she wants, and then she goes after it."

As governor, Schaefer tested her skills most by naming her secretary of juvenile services, after she had helped form the department for him a few years earlier. She then had to clean up the mess at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for troubled boys, and did so by firing the company running it.

Perhaps an even bigger test would come in Maine, where 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 the practices were woefully outmoded - "It was sort of Dickensian," King said. The state was also facing big budget cuts.

"She was terrific up here," King said. "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."

Saar talks with pride of the accomplishment, but has no illusions about what it required of her, saying, "It was a bare-knuckles fight."

In accepting Ehrlich's offer, Schurick said, Saar inherited an agency that was also in bad shape. "It was underfunded, morale was low, and facilities were under tremendous pressure," he said.

She put her management template to work, first by recruiting a leadership staff, then by gathering her new deputies for a retreat, to plan the chore ahead. 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 chronic problem haunting the agency - a recidivism rate of about 50 percent within three years of release. Inmates were failing on the outside and committing more crimes. And with 14,000 prisoners released each year, that meant 7,000 future criminals were hitting the streets.

They worked up plans for more and better training, education, drug addiction treatment, and behavior counseling, an initiative now known as RESTART. Saar then had to sell it to her boss and to his budget secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.

"So I sat down with the governor and Chip DiPaula, and explained it to them. I said, 'Here's RESTART. You've been talking about putting in treatment for drug offenders and all, here's how we can move, and here's how we can do it. It's going to cost us. The first piece: $9.2 million.' And I could see his eyes getting as big as saucers. And I said, 'But it's not as bad as you think.'"

She then explained that, thanks to a new analysis indicating that the state's prisons had an excess of more than 200 correctional officers, the state could save about $7 million of that total by hiring counselors and educators as the jobs of correctional officers came open through attrition.

"And he was delighted."

Now she has to sell the plan to state legislators, whose budget analysts have expressed skepticism about some of RESTART's purported benefits. State employee unions are wary of the guard cutbacks, saying they'll endanger safety. Many senators and delegates will doubtless have ideas about the best remedies.

But don't expect Saar to shrink from the critics and questioners, said former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who now patrols the State House as a lobbyist and business consultant. She watched Saar in action while serving as a member of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, and said, "Some Cabinet secretaries say what they think everyone wants to hear. But [Saar] is fact based and data driven, and once she's sure of her ground she doesn't back down easily."

Longtime friend Diane Gordy, acting director of social services in Frederick County, agreed. Gordy, who looks upon Saar as her mentor, said, "She has been in positions where very few people want to tread. She pursues it, and she doesn't let go. I don't know when the woman sleeps."

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