A bipartisan panel in Annapolis is looking at ways to reduce Maryland's prison population.
A bipartisan panel in Annapolis is looking at ways to reduce Maryland's prison population. (JED KIRSCHBAUM / Baltimore Sun)

Over the past decade, Maryland has been sentencing even nonviolent offenders to longer and longer prison terms — at greater and greater public expense. Now, Annapolis lawmakers from across the political spectrum are taking a hard look at whether that makes sense.

At the behest of top General Assembly Democrats and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, senators and delegates have been meeting since June with police, prosecutors, judges, public defenders and others to examine the state's criminal justice policies. The group is charged with recommending ways to reduce incarceration in Maryland, where the state is spending $768 million this year to keep about 21,000 people in prison.

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"It is an unprecedented opportunity to do a deep dive and look holistically into our criminal justice system," said Christopher B. Shank, Hogan's top adviser on crime and chairman of the group, the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council.

The panel is considering new strategies for sentencing offenders, rehabilitating them while they are in prison and supervising them once they get out. Its recommendations are expected to lead to legislative proposals in the Assembly session that begins in January.

The idea isn't necessarily to save money, officials say, but to spend it more wisely. Instead of building more prisons, some believe public safety would improve if money were shifted to drug treatment, mental health care and a more robust parole and probation system.

"We need to give some hope to the people who are imprisoned that there is a future ahead of them," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, author of the legislation that created the council.

While no one is predicting a drastic revision of the state's lawbooks, council members say their work could yield some of the most important changes to Maryland's crime policy in decades.

Miller is looking for "fairly sweeping" changes.

"We've committed to the program. We've also committed to the results," he said. "It's worked in other states. We believe it will work in Maryland."

The bipartisan effort in Maryland comes as some Republicans and Democrats in Congress are finding rare common ground on an issue that once broke strongly along party lines. In the U.S. Senate, liberals and conservatives are working to craft legislation to cut mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department announced this month that it will grant early release to 6,000 federal prisoners — 140 of them from Maryland — as part of an Obama administration program that could cut the sentences of 46,000 inmates convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

In Annapolis, the state council brings together groups sometimes at odds — defense lawyers and prosecutors, for instance —to seek solutions they can all support.

"It's a very ideologically diverse group," said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that handles criminal justice issues. "They bring a wide range of experiences."

Zirkin said the council is looking critically at the results the state has been getting from its investment in corrections. "Part of the effort is to find savings within the system so we can reinvest in areas that need them," Zirkin said.

The council has broken up into three work groups, each looking at a specific policy area. One is considering the lengths of sentences and mandatory minimum terms. Another is examining policies for releasing inmates and easing their re-entry into the community. A third is considering how Maryland supervises released prisoners through its parole and probation system.

Their work could lead to recommendations on such issues as whether to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing and other offenses. Now, for instance, a third conviction for dealing certain drugs, including heroin, can carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years.

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The council is also looking at how Maryland punishes former inmates who violate parole by actions such as missing appointments with their supervising officer.

Miller said he learned about the concept of "justice reinvestment" from Republican counterparts at a conference of Senate presidents. When he returned to Maryland, he introduced the bill that created the council and lined up support from the judiciary and the Hogan administration. Miller also enlisted the participation of the Pew Charitable Trust, a nonprofit that has helped fund and provide research muscle for similar programs in more than 30 states.

The measure sailed through the Senate unanimously but ran into some opposition — mostly from conservative Republicans — before passing 118-20 in the House of Delegates.

Among those opposed was Del. Pat McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican. "Some conservatives are caught up in a phony policy that they believe is saving money. I don't think public safety should be based on accounting principles," he said.

Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, also voted against the measure. "I think we need to focus a little more on protecting people and a little bit less on letting people out of jail early," he said.

But Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Frederick County Republican, supported the legislation and serves on the council. He said conservatives have been the leading voices supporting justice reinvestment nationally. Hough said about 30 states have gone through a similar process, most of them Republican-dominated.

Hough pointed to Texas, where he said the state saved $2 billion it would have used to build new prisons by shifting money into treatment for drug offenders and drunken drivers. He wants to find savings in Maryland to put more resources into mental health treatment.

"We're not talking about letting dangerous offenders out on the street," Hough said. "The goal is to come up with something that's a good common-sense reform."

Though research suggests that longer sentences do not necessarily improve public safety, Hough notes that the time served by those sent to prison in Maryland is up 23 percent over the past decade, according to the Pew analysis.

"There's this thought that, 'Oh well, sentences are going down and people are getting off easier nowadays,' which actually isn't true," he said.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said he found it surprising that nonviolent drug distribution offenders, who are eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences, were averaging almost 40 percent.

"I thought most of the drug offenders were getting out more quickly," said Shellenberger, a Democrat known for his tough-on-crime approach.

While he approves of the longer terms judges are giving for violent crimes, he wonders whether some of the time and money spent on imprisoning low-level dealers would be better spent on drug treatment, mental health and other programs.

The Pew Trust looked at Maryland criminal justice data from 2005 to 2014. Among its findings:

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•Baltimore is sending significantly fewer people to prison, while the rest of the state is sending more.

•Statewide, 58 percent of prison admissions are for nonviolent crimes.

•Less than 40 percent of offenders are paroled, and many who receive parole wait for months after they become eligible — even if they are considered at low risk of committing new crimes.

•Nearly three-quarters of those returned to prison from parole or probation are sent back for violating the rules of supervision — such as by missing a meeting — rather than for committing new crimes.

When the council broke up into the work groups this month to hash out the details of policy changes, it was difficult to tell the party of the participants as they sifted through the data.

"It's not Republican-Democrat. It's just arithmetic," Hough said.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who serves on the council, said she likes its data-driven approach. "We are going to base any legislation that comes out of this on Maryland data, national data and other states' experiences," she said.

Council members, who will meet again in work groups this week, appear to be moving toward a consensus on some issues. The Zirkin work group showed interest in reducing the sentences of low-level drug dealers and diverting more of them into treatment. Members of Hough's group considered making sanctions for violation of parole "swift and certain," but not necessarily a trip back to prison.

Some proposals could face strong resistance.

"In my mind, violent crime is off limits for this committee," said Shellenberger. "There are still some of us who believe in punishment."

Shank, who heads the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, said he hopes the council's work will help develop legislation that Hogan can get behind. Other recommendations, he said, could be implemented by the governor without legislation. The council's report is due Dec. 31, in time for the legislative session.

Council members say they are not expecting changes to Maryland's criminal justice system to yield a windfall for taxpayers. But they say the state can spend its crime-fighting dollars more effectively.

"We could avert new spending on facilities," Shank said. "I don't want to create this notion that we're going to be siphoning all this money out of the corrections system."

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