In 2016, Maryland followed the path of more than half of the states during the last decade by undertaking important criminal justice reforms intended to reverse decades of runaway prison growth and address long-standing inequities in the justice system. Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA) is expected to cut the state’s prison population by nearly 1,200 people and save $80 million over the next decade. This would be on the heels of a decline of nearly 25 percent in the prison population over the last decade, attributable to falling crime rates and changes in policy and practice, putting Maryland in the company of national leaders like New Jersey and New York.
So, why, at a time when Maryland appears to have already taken steps to curb mass incarceration, would a candidate for governor put forth a proposal to cut incarceration by another 30 percent? Because that might be the state’s best strategy for safer neighborhoods and stronger communities.
Since 2008, 35 states have experienced declines in crime while also cutting their prison populations, many quite significantly. In most cases, a trend of falling crime and reforms targeting some drug and property offenses are what drove the decline. However, these reforms were not a mere “one and done.” They were the first step away from decades of costly and ineffective “tough on crime” policies, and their success was dependent on a long view, making adjustments along the way. Many states — such as Georgia, Ohio and South Carolina — returned in subsequent legislative sessions to expand upon their initial reforms, invest in alternatives and further reduce the number of people locked up.
For this reason, claims by some members of the state’s Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council that the JRA has sufficiently right-sized the prison population are confusing the starting and finish line. In fact, much work remains to be done. According to a 2017 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 60 percent of persons admitted to Maryland’s prisons in 2014 were admitted for non-violent offenses, and 58 percent of new admissions were locked up for parole or probation violations. Only 37 percent of people released from Maryland’s prisons that year were released on parole, and they were released nine months after their parole eligibility dates, on average. Additionally, there are about 3,150 people in Maryland prisons who are over 50 years old, and nearly 1,000 who are over 60. These individuals, by and large, have served long sentences and pose little public safety risk. A substantial number should be released, which would save millions of dollars for the state. These are not the numbers of a prison system that has been right-sized.
Fortunately, there is a better approach. Recent research points to community organizations that invest in economic development, education, healthy neighborhoods and more opportunities for children as playing a substantial role in reducing violent crime. Rather than focusing resources on backward-thinking policing and incarceration strategies, leadership need to realign public safety dollars with the needs of the community.
This is an area where the Justice Reinvestment Oversight Board would be wise to direct its work. Across the country, states have invested more than one half-billion dollars in savings back into a wide-range of public safety strategies in recent years. Much of this has been into community-based treatment and services, in-prison programing and problem-solving courts. We strongly recommend that Maryland leadership look beyond simply reinvesting in the criminal justice system and choose to invest in the people closest to the problem — those who live and work in disadvantaged communities of color that have not been well-served by the status quo. According to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project, 72 percent of those incarcerated in Maryland’s prisons were black, the highest proportion in the nation. There is no better way for Maryland to tackle violence and address long-standing racial inequalities than to partner with those individuals who live in impacted communities, ask them what they need, and use JRA dollars to reinvest in these local strategies and empower local leaders.
So, yes, it is absolutely possible for Maryland to cut its prison population by another 30 percent. In fact, it is optimal, so long as the state wisely invests the dollars saved from reduced incarceration into the neighborhoods, families and individuals most damaged by nearly a half-century of mass incarceration. It is time that we use prisons as the backstop, rather than the backbone, of our approach to public safety.
Marc Schindler (email@example.com) is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and former interim director of Washington, D.C.’s, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Vincent Schiraldi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and former Commissioner of Probation for New York City.