Maryland has surged to the front of a national trend of states reducing their prison populations, according to a new report by a nonprofit group that tracks criminal justice issues.
The Vera Institute of Justice said Friday that Maryland led the nation with a 9.6 percent drop in prison inmates in 2017. That is more than 2 percentage points greater than the decline registered in the second-ranking states, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The decline means 1,916 fewer people are serving sentences in state-run correctional facilities — leaving a prison population of 18,078 at the end of last year.
The reduction appears to have been triggered in part by the 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act, a sweeping measure that sought to divert nonviolent offenders from prison to drug treatment and other programs.
“That bill in and of itself saved thousands of prosecutions,” said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who was one of its architects. “Clearly, treating drug addicts in the prison system makes no sense.”
Last year’s reduction was not a one-year fluke. Over the past decade, Maryland’s prison has dropped by almost 23 percent — fifth in the nation.
The report said the reduction, first reported by The Marshall Project news organization, is part of a national trend that brought the U.S. prison population last year below 1.5 million for the first time since 2004.
Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the study’s authors, said the move away from mass incarceration is a positive development.
“A lot of people think being tough on crime is pro-public safety,” he said. “We think being smart on crime is important. A big part of that is reducing the use of unnecessary incarceration.”
Stephen T. Moyer, Maryland’s Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the decline leveled off early this year. But he expects the state prison population to continue to dwindle.
“I still think it’s going down into the 17,000s,” Moyer said.
But, he added, with 5,000 people in the system for murder and another 2,000 for rape and other sex offenses, there is a level below which the state is unlikely to ever go.
Moyer said he has not heard complaints from state’s attorneys and law enforcement that the decline in incarceration is making communities less safe. Meanwhile, he said, populations in most county jails are down as well.
The long-term decline in the state’s prison population has allowed his department to close older facilities, including prison wings at Jessup and Hagerstown, Moyer said.
“Our goal is to close these antiquated prisons and put more money into mental health treatment,” he said.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, who led the fight for the justice reinvestment legislation in the House, said there is good reason to believe the law will continue to reduce prison populations. The Montgomery County Democrat noted that parts of the law only took effect last Oct. 1.
Dumais said factors other than the law help explain the longer-term decline. She said the state has improved its services for people who complete their sentences.
“There’s much more focus over the last 10 years on re-entry, and that’s been making a difference,” she said.
Kang-Brown said a shift away from cash bail in 2017 has also worked to decrease prison populations. He explained that people who are arrested and then released have a better chance of mounting a defense and avoiding prison time.
Zirkin said another factor in the prison population drop in recent years was the 2014 bill, which he sponsored in the Senate, decriminalizing posession of small amounts of marijuana.
Some criminal justice reform advocates have warned that crime legislation adopted by the General Assembly this year and signed by Gov. Larry Hogan runs counter to the spirit of the Justice Reinvestment Act by increasing mandatory minimum sentences for some violent offenses.
V. Glenn Fueston Jr., executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, said the Hogan administration sees this year’s crime legislation as consistent with the justice reinvestment measure.
“One of the key goals of [justice reinvestment] is to focus enforcement efforts on individuals committing violent crimes while providing second chances and rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders,” Fueston said in a statement. “The legislation passed this session focuses on getting repeat violent offenders off of our streets by ensuring that they serve their full sentences.”
Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he doubts this year’s legislation will do much to change the downward trend.
“That bill was for the worst of the worst and it was not a large number of individuals,” he said.
The group that produced the report, the Vera Institute, calls itself “an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization” working to improve the justice system.
Kang-Brown said the United States is still locking up too many people. He said that 20 states increased their prison populations last year, led by Tennessee at 6.6 percent and Utah at 4.9 percent.
“Even in the places that declined by large amounts, they’re still sending a lot of people to prisons and jails,” Kang-Brown said. “It’s going to take more work to unwind mass incarceration.”