I should forward the many letters I receive from disgusted Baltimoreans to Mayor Brandon Scott so he can convince them to feel optimistic about city life, remain a taxpaying resident or visit a city restaurant for an interesting meal.
I should send a few to indicted Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby so she can respond to those who blame her for the city’s violent crime the way she blamed her predecessor. (During Mosby’s two terms, the city has averaged 337 murders per year; during the four years previous, when Gregg Bernstein was state’s attorney, the city averaged 215.)
I would forward suggestions for stemming the shootings to Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, but I don’t have any. People who write to complain about the incessant violence offer no constitutionally sound ideas about how to stop it; they just blast the Baltimore Police Department for not doing so. Things are getting worse, they say, not better.
And that’s true, but not just in Baltimore.
The FBI reports a 30% increase in homicides nationwide since 2020. Using state police data, ABC News found that at least 12 major cities broke annual homicide records in 2021. Why this happened is not clear, though experts contacted by ABC cited “strained law enforcement staffing, a pronounced decline in arrests and continuing hardships from the pandemic.”
I can only address one cause at a time. Today I’ll respond to those who assert that Baltimore’s immediate and long-term problems with criminality stem from a too-lenient criminal justice system.
I’ve heard that a lot over the years, and I heard it again this past week as readers expressed outrage and hopelessness about the city’s street violence.
“The laws changed, criminals don’t serve time,” wrote a man from Owings Mills. “They are let free and go out and commit more crimes. You read everyday that the criminals, the murderers all have huge criminal records.”
There’s no doubt that repeat violent offenders are a problem. That’s been the case for years.
But some perspective is needed here.
Despite what you hear on talk radio, most people who go to prison for murder are not quickly released. Killers still get long sentences — Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams recently sentenced one to life plus 52 years — and most of them stay in our prisons for decades. Over the last 30 years, very few murderers were set free by Maryland governors, even longtime lifers who had been recommended for release by the state’s parole commission.
As of 2018, Maryland had a lower rate of incarceration than the national average but, at 531 inmates per 100,000 population, a higher rate than any democracy in the world, according to a global analysis by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.
By summer 2019, the state reported 18,244 inmates in our prisons. About half of them were serving sentences of at least 10 years and another 2,341 were serving life sentences.
While the state’s prison population has fallen since then, we still have more than 16,000 inmates, and that does not include Marylanders in federal prisons, local detention centers or our juvenile system.
More than 86% of prison inmates are serving time for violent crimes, according to an analysis by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit that has conducted research on the Maryland correctional system. The JPI finds that more than 13% of inmates are serving sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years; 40% are serving 15 years or more and about 14% are lifers.
Of course, we have a parole system that allows inmates to earn time off their sentences. According to the most recent data from the state, among 16,652 inmates, the average sentence length was 19.8 years, while the length of stay was 7.5 years.
Some will look at those last two numbers and say, “There’s your problem: We’re not keeping them in prison long enough. They get out, come back to Baltimore and commit more crimes.”
I agree. That’s what frequently happens. But why?
It’s because we do too little to prepare inmates for release. It’s not that they get out too soon, it’s that they are not ready to take the bus back from Hagerstown and start a job in Baltimore that will move them to a better life than the one they had before prison.
Prison is a waste of time and money — a lost opportunity — if we do not use the time and money ($46,000 per inmate now) to not only punish offenders but prepare them for a different and decent future.
Some skills training already takes place behind the walls, and thousands of inmates are employed in manufacturing products for state agencies. But all of that needs to be scaled up to prepare them for jobs in sectors that regional economists have projected for growth — health care, manufacturing, skilled trades and technology.
Doing this requires a fundamental change in a system we’ve had in place for decades. It means, from the moment a convicted felon arrives to serve his sentence, emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment. It means hiring more counselors, teachers, skills instructors and therapists. We need a transformation from a system focused on confinement to one focused on the future.
I realize this is not an immediate answer to Baltimore’s crime problem, but we need to treat the causes of violent crime as well as the symptoms. If we don’t make big changes at the state level, the city will continue to suffer.