As state leaders in Annapolis grapple with ways to close the budget gap, there is bi-partisan agreement in one area — Maryland's criminal justice system needs to be overhauled. Criminal justice reform is no longer a contentious issue. In fact, it is one of the rare issues that unites legislators across the spectrum.
Conservative leaders have taken a leadership role to reform efforts in several states. They've scrutinized spending on prisons, as they do in many areas of government. What they've found is that prison costs have skyrocketed, and offenders aren't leaving prison prepared to be good neighbors. In fact, studies have shown that low level offenders walk out of prison more likely to commit crimes than they were when they went in.
Although states spend more than $53 billion a year on corrections, nationally, four out of 10 offenders will return to prison within three years. Frankly, we aren't getting the level of public safety that we are paying for. There is good news, however. Several states have now adopted policies that cut their prison costs while dramatically lowering their crime rates.
For instance, in "tough on crime" Texas, conservative Republicans joined with Democrats to scrap plans to build more prisons and instead opted to reserve expensive prison beds for dangerous or habitual offenders. Other offenders would be held accountable for their crimes through enhanced supervision and programs such as drug courts which have been proven to be effective.
Texas redirected much of its savings into community treatment for the mentally ill and those with drug addictions. Not only have these reforms reduced Texas' prison population — allowing the state to safely close two prisons — but for the first time there is no waiting list for drug treatment there. Crime has also dropped to the lowest point since 1968. As a consequence, Texas taxpayers saved $3 billion in prison costs.
More than 30 states have committed to similar "justice reinvestment" practices to control costs and protect public safety while ensuring that more offenders receive the supervision and services they need to stay crime-free.
Maryland is now considering similar reforms, and we applaud Gov. Larry Hogan for his leadership. The governor and legislative leaders established the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council with strong support from both sides of the aisle. Governor Hogan signed the legislation, noting that "taking a tough stance on crime isn't just about incarceration."
The council, a collaboration of the three branches of government plus stakeholders from throughout the criminal justice system, is working with the Pew Charitable Trusts to conduct a top-to-bottom review of Maryland's sentencing and corrections policies and practices. It will develop recommendations for comprehensive reform and present them to the legislature and governor by the end of the year.
Here are some facts about Maryland's prisons. They house 21,000 offenders, 35 percent of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Fifty-eight percent of offenders who entered state prison last year were imprisoned for failing to comply with the terms of their probation or parole supervision, indicating that supervision could be improved. The No. 1 crime for offenders sentenced to prison is a drug offense. Despite the growing body of research demonstrating the diminishing public safety return of long prison sentences, offenders, regardless of crime type, are spending an average of 23 percent longer in prison than they did a decade ago.
Maryland spends more than $1.35 billion a year on corrections. The council will conduct a thorough review of this spending to ensure that the public gets a high level of safety for each dollar spent.
We are leaders in the national Right on Crime movement, a group of conservatives working to apply our conservative principles to the criminal justice system. We enthusiastically support the work of the council as it considers ways to keep the public safe while controlling taxpayer costs, holding offenders accountable and implementing programs that are proven to reduce recidivism.
Maryland is not only being smart on crime but also showing how bipartisan cooperation can make government work as it should. You should be proud of the work your leaders are doing.
Newt Gingrich is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Pat Nolan is the Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.