Maryland’s prison population drops to 1980s levels, continuing a multiyear decline

Maryland’s prison population has fallen below 18,000 for the first time in nearly three decades.

According to a report released Wednesday by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that tracks criminal justice issues, 17,815 people were held in Maryland’s state prisons at the end of last year.


That amounts to a prison incarceration rate of 295 per 100,000 residents — a 1.7% drop from the rate in 2017. Over the past decade, the rate has fallen by nearly 29%.

Nationally, about 1.5 million people were incarcerated in state and federal prisons at the end of last year, down 20,000 (or 1.3%) from the end of 2017, according to the Vera Institute report.


The Vera Institute figures were obtained directly from each state's department of corrections and from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The numbers for Maryland might differ from the state's published reports because they do not include people held in state prisons on behalf of other jurisdictions, such as federal prisoners, said Jacob Kang-Brown, the report’s lead author.

Maryland’s 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act is often credited for helping to reduce the prison population in recent years. The landmark legislation sought to divert nonviolent offenders from prison into drug treatment and other programs and included changes to mandatory minimum drug penalties. It went into effect in October 2017.

Maryland’s incarceration rate began a steady decline in 2011 and dropped nearly 10% in 2017 — the largest decline of any state that year.

“We expect those numbers to continue to drop because of the JRA,” said J. Michael Zeigler, acting secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Zeigler also attributed the recent decline in the state’s inmates to a reduction of arrests in Baltimore City since the early 2000s. The city made 25,180 pre-trial bookings in fiscal year 2018, compared with more than 100,000 in fiscal year 2004. As of Jan. 1, 2019, 27% of all Maryland inmates call Baltimore home, according to data provided by the department.

Maryland’s imprisonment rate is the lowest it has been since the late 1980s — a period that preceded enormous growth in the prison population across the United States.

Maryland’s prison incarceration rate

per 100,000 residents, 1970-2018

Following the 1986 death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine overdose, federal and state legislation in the mid-’80s (in some cases referred to as “Len Bias laws”) set mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenders and established a 100-to-1 ratio in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine — meaning a person convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine would get the same mandatory minimum sentence as a person possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine.


“This single event sparked a whole nation’s war on drugs,” said Michael Gimbel, then the director of the Baltimore County government’s Office of Substance Abuse, in a Baltimore Sun article published for the five-year anniversary of Bias’ death.

Nationally, incarceration rates for federal and state prisoners shot up 113% between 1980 and 1990. In Maryland, the rate doubled.

Prison incarceration continued to grow throughout the ‘90s. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which established a federal “three strikes law” giving mandatory life sentences to felons with two prior convictions. In 2015, Clinton expressed regret over signing the measure and conceded its role in over-incarceration in the United States.

Also in 1994, Rodney G. Stokes, a prisoner who was out on work release, fatally shot his former girlfriend and then killed himself outside the Maryland Penitentiary. The incident sparked then Gov. Parris N. Glendening to announce a “life means life” policy in 1995, refusing to grant parole to prisoners serving life terms except for medical reasons.

Maryland is one of three states, along with Oklahoma and California, where the governor has final say on a parole recommendation for those serving life sentences, said Ryan King, director of research and policy at the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute.


After Glendening’s edict, which the former governor later disavowed, nobody serving a life term was paroled outright until Governor Larry Hogan’s administration. Under Hogan, who commuted the life sentence of Calvin Ash on Wednesday, four lifers have been released on non-medical paroles, said David Blumberg, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission.

Granting a commutation — technically, a reduction in prison term — involves a different legal process than parole, said Lila Meadows, staff attorney with the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Prison incarceration rates peaked statewide in 2002 and nationally in 2007.

This inverted “U-shaped phenomenon” in prison incarceration rates is not unique to Maryland, Kang-Brown said. However, mass incarceration remains on the rise in such states as Indiana, Texas and Wyoming, according to the report.

Sonia Kumar, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, was cautious about putting too much stock into statistics for a single year. She questioned why Maryland’s prison population drop slowed in 2018 after seeing a precipitous decline in 2017.

“We should be investigating why,” she said.


In 2018, Missouri saw the largest decrease in its prison incarceration rate — 7.1%, according to the Vera Institute report — in the wake of the first major overhaul of its criminal code since 1970.

Beyond overall numbers, Kumar would be interested in seeing more detailed demographic breakdowns.

“If we’re not confronting racial disparities in our prison system head on, we know that they will persist,” she said. As of Jan. 31, 71% of Maryland’s prisoners were black, according to information provided by the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, which compiles official prison tallies for all state and federal prisoners, is scheduled to release a report later this week, which will include prison totals as well as information on inmates’ gender and age as of year-end 2017.

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Going forward, King said, the state needs to address prisoners serving longer terms for serious offenses, rather than the “low-hanging fruit” of non-violent offenders.

As of Jan. 31, only 8% of Maryland’s prison population have drug offense listed as their primary offense, down from 21% a decade ago. More than a quarter — 4,782 — of Maryland’s prisoners are listed under murder, about 3,400 are under robbery and about 1,755 are under sexual assault, according to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.


King pointed to the Unger case, in which nearly 200 prisoners, mostly geriatric men convicted of rape and murder, were set free under a court ruling. Fewer than 5% have committed a new crime, he said. A provision of the Justice Reinvestment Act expanded eligibility for geriatric parole, he said.

King also would like to see more granular analyses, beyond broad population numbers, about the different provisions of the act and on the sub-groups it effects.

“You want to really dig down and say, ‘here are the people who benefited from the reform, here are what their outcomes are,’” King said.

Without this data, he said, there is not enough information to say whether or not the act is working.

“Usually trend data does little more than help pose the questions rather than answer the questions,” he said.

4:15 p.m. Thursday: This story has been updated to correct that several Maryland prisoners serving life sentences have been paroled. The Sun regrets the error.