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Comprehensive and common sense justice reform in Md.

Robert Ehrlich: Justice reform in Maryland is welcome and long overdue.

During the 2015 Legislative Session, Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law a bill establishing a "Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council," that was to develop policies to "further reduce the state's incarcerated population, reduce spending on corrections, and reinvest in strategies to increase public safety and reduce recidivism." Late last month, the council released a comprehensive reform package that will save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars over the next 10 years and make our streets safer.

This move should be applauded and is long overdue. It represents a dedication by Maryland's leaders to reform a bloated and inefficient corrections system. For example, last year the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services accounted for nearly 14 percent of the total state workforce and 7.1 percent of expenditures from the general fund. State spending on corrections has increased by 10 percent since 2006, adjusted for inflation.

Prisons are an important and necessary tool for public safety — "Job One" for every public official. Violent offenders should be incarcerated for great lengths of time. Yet, far too often, low-level, non-violent individuals are swept into correctional facilities when they could otherwise be supervised in the community, thereby saving taxpayers money and allowing individuals to work, pay taxes and successfully reintegrate into society.

Recent data reflect a trend toward longer sentences for all types of offenses, including non-violent crime, increasing overall by 25 percent over the past 10 years. Further, 40 percent of offenders find themselves back in prison within three years — a terrible indictment of our re-entry practice and procedure.

There is another way: "Law and order" states such as Texas, Mississippi and Georgia have shown that diverting non-violent, low-level offenders from costly prison beds reduces incarceration rates, increases public safety and lowers the fiscal burden on the taxpayer. In fact, the 10 states that have reduced their incarceration rate the most over the past decade reduced their crime rates at a higher average than the 10 states with the greatest increase in incarceration rates.

In 2007, Texas was slated to spend $2.1 billion for several new prisons to house a projected 17,000 additional inmates over the next five years. Instead, Texas invested $241 million on increasing diversion options and increasing capacity for treatment centers for low-level offenders. The result? Texas has its lowest incarceration and crime rates since the '60s. The state has closed three prisons, instead of building several new ones as projected prior to the reforms.

It's time for Maryland to stop nibbling around the edges of criminal justice reform and advance broad and substantial investment into cost-effective programs proven to work. Data-driven policies across the nation have shown that Maryland can be a safer and more economically sound state by embracing proven criminal justice reform policies.

The state council's recommendations include common-sense sentencing reform to focus prison beds on serious and violent offenders, evidence-based policies to strengthen community supervision, and improvements to release and re-entry practices. If implemented, these policies will reduce Maryland's prison population by 14 percent over the next 10 years, saving $247 million for taxpayers.

Taxpayers should take note of this bold package and Governor Hogan's efforts. Comprehensive reform that furthers the cause of justice and protects the public's purse awaits in 2016.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. served as governor of Maryland from 2003-2007. He is currently a partner at the firm of King & Spalding. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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