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The number of people in Maryland prisons continues to drop

Maryland’s prison population — which has been decreasing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the country — continues to shrink.

From October 2017 through the end of last month, the number of people locked up in Maryland’s prisons fell an additional 1.3 percent, continuing a multiyear drop.

According to data presented Thursday at the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Oversight Board, 18,998 people were incarcerated by the state June 30, down from 19,242 in the fall.

Incarceration rates at local jails run by counties across the state are also decreasing, said Angelina Guarino, director of justice reinvestment for the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

“Generally those rates are falling,” Guarino told the panel. “For the most part, there’s a marked decrease.”

She noted Montgomery County was an exception as that county’s jail population has risen.

The panel is overseeing implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Act, which seeks to divert nonviolent offenders from prison to drug treatment and other programs.

In 2016, Gov. Larry Hogan signed the sweeping bill, which ended various mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, expanded expungement of misdemeanors, and reformed the ways parole violations are handled and good-time credits are calculated.

As the prison population declines, the state of Maryland is expecting to see financial savings from housing inmates. The plan is for those savings to be used for local crime prevention grants, such as drug abuse treatment and mental health treatment.

Board members said Thursday that it would be months — if not years — before the savings can be calculated and used for grants. At the time of the bill’s passage, legislative analysts estimated that $2.2 million in grants could be awarded in 2019 from projected savings.

“If we reduce the level of incarceration, we can use the savings for mental health treatment,” said Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who led the fight for the justice reinvestment legislation in the House. “That’s conceptually what we’re trying to do: Use the savings to help more people.”

In May, a nonprofit that tracks criminal justice issues reported that Maryland was leading a national trend of states reducing their prison populations.

The Vera Institute of Justice found that Maryland led the nation with a 9.6 percent drop in prison inmates in 2017. That was more than 2 percentage points greater than the decline registered in the second-ranking states, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The reduction was continuing a trend for the state. Over the past decade, Maryland’s prison population has dropped by almost 23 percent — fifth in the nation.

At least some of the decline is attributable to the large reduction in arrests in Baltimore City — which have declined from more than 110,000 in 2003 to fewer than 25,000 last year. Baltimore makes up about 32 percent of the state’s pretrial incarcerated population.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who sits on the oversight board, said he believes multiple factors are contributing to the decline in incarceration.

“It’s not only Justice Reinvestment,” said Shellenberger, a Democrat. “A lot of counties are boosting their pretrial services. I think more people are on home detention and GPS monitoring instead of waiting for trial in jail.”

As deaths from drug overdoses skyrocket in Maryland, Shellenberger said he’s hopeful savings from the act can be realized and turned into drug treatment grants.

“If we are saving money, then that money needs to be turned into expanding services,” he said.

As the number of incarcerated Marylanders declines, board members noted, many of those behind bars are locked up for serious violent crimes.

About 5,000 of Maryland’s prisoners are incarcerated for murder, about 3,500 for robbery and about 2,000 for sexual assault. About 12 percent of Maryland’s prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses.

Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe suggested the board look into releasing more elderly prisoners, saying they are not a threat to public safety.

“They’re running nursing homes in certain parts of the prison,” he said.

State officials also briefed the board on the effort to fight addiction by releasing inmates early from behind bars to treatment beds.

Since Oct. 1, 448 defendants have been admitted to treatment beds, the data show.

Of those, 287 defendants are still in treatment, while 62 successfully completed treatment. However, 32 were unsuccessful in their treatment and 63 escaped from the non-secure treatment facilities.

The General Assembly this year changed Maryland law to allow only nonviolent offenders to be eligible for early release from incarceration to a treatment bed.

The legislature also backed mandatory minimum sentences for repeat gun offenders and increased funding for the anti-violence Safe Streets program.

State Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, said lawmakers have been intentional about trying to punish violent criminals, while providing help to addicts and nonviolent offenders.

“The people we’re mad at — the nonviolent offenders and the drug addicts — those are the people we want to rehabilitate,” Hough said. “The people we’re scared of — the rapists and murderers — those are the people we want to lock up. Those are the people we want to keep in jail and keep in jail longer.”

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