Maryland could save $247 million and cut prison population, reform panel is told

Maryland could save about $247 million over 10 years and cut its prison population by nearly 4,000 if it adopts a series of reforms under consideration by a high-profile commission, researchers told the panel Wednesday.

Consultants from the Pew Charitable Trusts told the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council the savings could then be shifted to programs with a proven track record of reducing repeat offenses and to provide drug treatment and more effective supervision of released prisoners.


The Pew report came as members of the council, representing a broad array of interests, including defense lawyers and prosecutors, worked to reach agreement on proposals to reduce mass incarceration while improving public safety.

"Our view is that we're going to get to a consensus package we can all be proud of," said Christopher B. Shank, director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention and chairman of the council.


The council was created by the General Assembly last spring.

The panel's report is expected to lay the groundwork for sweeping legislation to be debated by the General Assembly when it reconvenes in January. Maryland is following dozens of states going through a "justice reinvestment" process to redirect spending from prisons to more effective ways of deterring crime.

Shank said the bipartisan council will hold a final meeting Dec. 17 to resolve issues on which it has not reached consensus. It will then deliver a report to the legislature before Jan. 1.

Council members said there is broad agreement on significant reforms to the system for determining when prisoners are released and for reintegrating them into the community.

But the council remains deeply divided on sentencing policy. Council members had a spirited debate Wednesday over whether to scrap mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, chairman of the sentencing work group, said members agreed the state should eliminate the disparity between harsh sentences for crack cocaine possession and relatively lenient sentences for powder cocaine but have yet to agree on what the penalties should be.

The Baltimore County Democrat chairs the Senate panel that would consider any legislation recommended by the council.

Zirkin said members agree that the 1,700 Maryland inmates convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and sentenced under mandatory minimum sentencing laws deserve an opportunity to persuade a judge to reduce their sentences. Another possible recommendation would be to put a greater legal burden on prosecutors to show that a defendant should be sentenced under mandatory minimum laws.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat known for his hard-line approach on crime, said prosecutors could agree to that change.

"It just gives me an additional element I need to prove that shows that the person should get the sentence," he said.

Retired Judge Paul A. Hackner of Anne Arundel County noted that prosecutors rely heavily on the threat of mandatory minimums in plea bargain negotiations.

But Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's County lawyer and former lawmaker, said prosecutors often use the mandatory minimums to coerce defendants who have a legitimate case to plead guilty.


"This is a cancer on the fairness of our plea bargaining system," he said.

Shank said that even though no formal vote was taken, the council has reached agreement on many proposals it will recommend. They include:

•Making parole automatic in most cases for nonviolent offenders who reach their release eligibility dates as long as they have followed prison rules and complied with a pre-release plan. The panel has identified an average nine-month delay in granting parole as a major contributor to prison overpopulation.

•Allowing nonviolent drug offenders to earn credits toward sentence reduction on the same basis as other nonviolent offenders.

•Expanding access to parole for prisoners over age 60, with the exception of sex offenders and those sentenced to life without parole.

•Adopting a system of gradually increasing sanctions for offenders who commit "technical" violations of the terms of parole or probation. The system, which would not apply to those who commit new crimes, is intended to create a less drastic option than sending offenders back to complete their sentences.

•Eliminating jail time for first-time offenses of driving without a license or on a suspended license.

Zoe Towns, a spokeswoman for Pew, said the organization's projected savings are based on the less divisive proposals before the council. If the panel decides to recommend reductions in sentences, including a rollback of mandatory minimums, the savings could go higher, she said.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the panel should make recommendations based on data even if members doubt they would pass in the legislature.

She urged members to take on the issue of mandatory minimums, contending that statistical evidence shows that when New York scrapped some and reduced others, drug arrests went down and racial disparities decreased.

But Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Frederick County Republican, said he does not want to address eliminating mandatory minimums for fear that it would disturb the panel's bipartisan consensus on other issues.

"Politics is the art of what's doable here," he said. "If we go too far, we risk blowing up this whole package."

Shank said he hopes to forge a consensus on as many issues as possible before the council's deadline. He said he does not want to make any recommendations on the basis of narrow majority votes.

"Unanimity is not necessary but consensus is," he said.

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