Ben Jealous wants to reduce Maryland's prison population by 30 percent. Is that possible?

As he campaigns throughout Maryland, Democratic candidate for governor Ben Jealous often talks about his plan to reform the state’s criminal justice system by shrinking the prison population by 30 percent and saving an estimated $660 million from the state’s budget.

Jealous has said reducing the prison population by about a third could be achieved within a “few years” by moving toward smarter policies that don’t incarcerate non-violent offenders and addicts.

But elected officials who have worked on the state’s Justice Reinvestment Act — which is credited with helping reduce Maryland’s prison population — question whether such a quick reduction can be achieved on top of the state’s already rapid decline in incarceration.

Further declines in the prison population could jeopardize public safety, some critics warn.

Jealous argued his plan would focus the state’s crime fight on the most dangerous felons as violence has escalated during Gov. Larry Hogan’s first term.

Maryland led the nation with a 9.6 percent drop in prison inmates in 2017, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Over the past decade, the state’s prison population has dropped by almost 23 percent — fifth in the nation. But since the Republican governor was elected, violent crime has increased 10 percent statewide, mainly driven by surging crime in Baltimore.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat who sits on the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, said the state has already been shrinking its prison population by putting more addicts into treatment rather than behind bars.

Hogan in 2016 signed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which seeks to divert nonviolent offenders from prison to drug treatment and other programs. It ended various mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, expanded expungement of misdemeanors, and reformed how parole violations are handled and good-time credits are calculated. The governor later pushed for mandatory minimum sentences for repeat gun offenders.

Shellenberger said he worries about public safety if the prison population were to decline even faster.

“My concern about lowering the prison population below where it is now is we’d have to look at letting out violent offenders, and that’s certainly something I would oppose,” Shellenberger said.

“Right now, it seems like we’re getting it right,” Shellenberger said. “We have the right people in jail, the right people in treatment, and the right people on the street. I just don’t see how we can go any lower. When it comes to cost, public safety should always override saving money.”

About 9 percent of Maryland’s approximately 19,000 prison inmates are currently incarcerated for drug offenses, while 26 percent are behind bars for murder convictions; 14 percent for assault; 9 percent for sexual assault; and 7 percent for burglary.

There are another 9,000 people incarcerated at local jails around Maryland.

The Jealous campaign says about half of inmates in state prisons and local jails are behind bars for probation violations, not new crimes — a population the candidate hopes to get treatment for, rather than seek punishment.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Jealous, said no violent offenders would be released under his plan.

“What Ben’s plan calls for is more efficiently managing our public safety resources and ensuring our focus is on the most violent repeat offenders,” Harris said. “We’re making sure we aren’t wasting public safety dollars on people who could be dealt with through other means. A lot of folks in that population need rehab not jail.”

Harris added that the reason Jealous knows a 30 percent reduction can be achieved is because he’s worked on the issue with governors of other states. California achieved a 27 percent reduction in prison population over eight years.

“There’s no reason Maryland cannot go as far as other states have gone,” he said.

The budget for the state’s prison system is about $1.4 billion. The Jealous campaign said the $660 million in projected savings would come not just from the prison system, but from the state court system, state police and local aid to public safety programs, which total $2.52 billion.

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, said he believes Jealous is right to say treatment is a better option than incarceration for many in the state’s jails and prisons.

“Our prisons are still overpopulated with people who are just sick,” he said. “What we need is to get them the help they need with drug treatment and job training.”

But state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who was one of the architects of the Justice Reinvestment Act, said he doesn’t think Jealous’ campaign looked closely enough at what Maryland has already done before publishing its plan, which bases its 30 percent reduction on models from New York and Texas.

“We have really right-sized the prison population. We are leading the country in decreasing prison population already,” Zirkin said. “We have focused on getting individuals with addictions into treatment. What Mr. Jealous is talking about is already being done. To put something like that out without understanding where Maryland is is really irresponsible. We’d have to put extremely dangerous people on the street.”

State Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican who sits on the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, said state lawmakers already “carved out almost all of the non-violent offenses” for treatment options.

“We spent a whole year going through and reducing all of these sentences,” Hough said. “Whoever wrote his plan was very unfamiliar with Maryland’s criminal justice system and the reforms that we’ve done.”

Jealous said this week his critics misunderstand his proposal. He said he wants to be tougher — not weaker — on violent offenders, such as murderers, rapists and home invaders.

Jealous said he believes he can reduce the prison population by continuing reform initiatives like the Justice Reinvestment Act, but also by driving down crime by increasing funding for violence-intervention programs like Safe Streets and Roca. He also wants to institute “gun courts” to focus on violent offenders and bolster the homicide unit of the Baltimore Police Department — by expanding staffing and increasing pay — to solve more murders, thereby ending cycles of violence.

“We have to reward the best and the brightest officers to stay in Baltimore,” Jealous said.

The former president of the NAACP said he believes the current drop in the state’s prison population has more to do with the weakened state of the Baltimore Police Department than any legislative reform. Arrests in Baltimore City have declined from more than 110,000 in 2003 to fewer than 25,000 last year — which many reform advocates view as a positive step, but Jealous said means some violent criminals are escaping arrest.

In two of the last three years, Baltimore police have cleared fewer than 40 percent of murder cases.

Homicides in Maryland have increased by 50 percent and violent crime is up by 10 percent over the last three years — while Hogan has been governor — mostly due to a record wave of violence that engulfed Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody.

“When I’m governor, if murders are up 50 percent, I will deserve part of the blame,” Jealous said. “Larry Hogan has tolerated police in Baltimore not getting every killer off the street the way we need them to. It is making us less safe. After the uprising, he washed his hands of the city. … On Larry Hogan’s watch, while the incarceration rate has gone down, murders have gone up and fewer killers are behind bars. That makes us less safe.”

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, countered that if Jealous thinks Maryland is unsafe now, it would be worse under his proposals.

“Ben Jealous has no problem spending tens of billions of dollars on his unaffordable schemes but is willing to put Maryland families at risk by cutting the public safety budget in half,” Mayer said. “Most of his ideas are irresponsible, but this one is unequivocally dangerous.”

Patrick Moran, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Maryland Council 3 union, which endorsed Jealous this week, said he isn’t taking Jealous literally about a 30 percent decline.

Moran, who represents 28,000 municipal workers, including corrections officers, called such a drop “not realistic.”

“I know maybe that’s his desire,” Moran said, “but I don’t think that’s realistic.”

Moran said he was less concerned with whether Jealous’ proposals live up to their hype and more concerned with Hogan’s mishandling of the prison system.

He said state officials under Hogan have failed to fill nearly 1,000 staff openings in the state’s prisons.

“Gov. Hogan hasn’t hired enough people and refuses to hire enough people,” he said. “I’m dealing with the day-to-day problems that Hogan has created.”

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