Over the past 50 years, Maryland has shown all the hallmarks of a “tough on crime” agenda: punitive sentencing, restrictive parole and a dizzying array of collateral consequences affecting life after incarceration. But while these policies sounded “tough,” they did little to deliver on promises of safety while simultaneously increasing the justice system’s disproportionate impact on people of color. With the costs of mass incarceration rising — we pay over $1 billion a year for Maryland’s correctional system — and its destructive impact on communities of color well-documented, the public and policymakers asked: Is there a better way?
One year ago, Maryland began an answer with the Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA). Over a year of analysis, testimony, public hearings and research into best practices culminated in the JRA. Drug penalties were amended, and mandatory minimums were recalibrated. Resources were earmarked for expanded drug and mental health treatment, opportunities were created to reduce prison time, and parole was expanded for older and infirm individuals. This brought us in line with more than 30 states using data and research to effectively prevent crime.
These reforms were projected to reduce the prison population by about 1,200 people, saving us $80 million over 10 years. This first anniversary of the JRA provides an opportunity to assess these reforms. But, unfortunately, because of a lack of data, we can’t document the impact of — and can’t fully implement — the JRA.
As we demonstrate in JPI's new policy brief, it’s impossible to know if the JRA is working absent individual-level data linked across agencies including law enforcement, courts and corrections. Maryland currently tracks system-level trends, such as the number of people in prison or the use of county detention facilities, but those are affected by factors having little to do with the JRA. The Oversight Board is statutorily required to “monitor the progress and compliance” of implementing the JRA, but Maryland has done too little to make cross agency individual-level data available to enable that monitoring.
Without this data, we can’t implement the JRA’s core reinvestment components — reallocating money saved from reducing the prison population to programs and interventions proven to enhance public safety. Because we have no idea how many people have been sentenced, or have not received a mandatory minimum, under the JRA, we can’t identify how much money was saved; it’s impossible to reinvest money we can’t identify. If Maryland fails to produce this data, we will be unable to fund crucial crime prevention programs. This would be a great loss for us all.
Across the country, more than $500 million has been reinvested in crime prevention as a result of similar policies. States like Colorado are using money saved from reducing incarceration to develop innovative, community-based strategies that prevent crime, assist reentry, provide job training and build economic capacity in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Meanwhile, there are over 800 people in Maryland prisons over the age of 60, most of whom pose little to no risk to public safety; their release would make significant savings available to reinvest in crime prevention. And we spend almost $300 million a year to incarcerate people from communities in Baltimore alone — Baltimore’s history, including recent homicide rates, demonstrates how ineffective that has been in reducing crime.
As we mark the first anniversary of the JRA, it is incumbent upon the governor and legislature to fully implement the law, beginning with ensuring that state agencies are collecting, sharing and reporting essential data. Only then can we identify and reinvest the saved dollars in communities most impacted by crime and violence. But we need to invest wisely — not by hiring more police, prosecutors or parole officers, but by engaging with people living in these neighborhoods, asking about their solutions to crime and public safety.
If we listen, we may hear it has more to do with housing, education, economic development, jobs and treating substance use and mental health disorders than being “tough on crime.” The JRA finally puts us in the position to make real strides in reducing crime, and it’s beyond time Maryland politicians get serious about making us all safer.
Ryan King (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of research and policy at the Justice Policy Institute, where Keith Wallington (email@example.com) is a state-based strategist focused on criminal justice reform in Maryland. Both live in the state.