Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Want a safer society? Turn the prisons inside out and start over. | COMMENTARY

In his Inaugural speech as Baltimore State’s Attorney, Ivan Bates reiterated his goal to crack down on illegal guns, and warned those who consider packing a gun to pack a toothbrush as well, as they’ll need it in jail.

We’ve seen this before: An elected official responsible for public safety goes to Annapolis to implore state legislators to stiffen the penalties for people who commit crimes with guns. Numerous police chiefs and prosecutors have made the trip, and this week’s lead witness was Ivan Bates, the new Baltimore State’s Attorney.

He wants judges to have the power to sentence to five years in prison anyone 21 or older caught with an illegal gun. The present maximum is three years, and Bates, a criminal defense attorney before taking office, knows well that most defendants consider a three-year penalty a joke. It’s hard to imagine that defendants will laugh less if the penalty goes to five years, but it would be a start.


In case you’ve been on extended leave from reality, Baltimore has a serious gun problem, as does the nation. So, however visceral his proffer, the city’s top prosecutor is right to suggest a weakness in law likely emboldens all kinds of people to keep deadly weapons handy. Clearly, the amount of guns in Baltimore, legal or illegal, make possible the amount of shootings in Baltimore, fatal or nonfatal.

So good luck to Bates in his pursuit of a slightly longer sentence for those caught with an illegal firearm.


Countering the prosecutor are the usual suspects: Professors, public defenders and other progressives citing studies that show longer sentences are not a deterrent to crime. And this week, while Bates was in Annapolis, the Sentencing Project released another study, this one arguing that no one should be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

“To end mass incarceration, the U.S. must dramatically shorten sentences,” said Liz Komar, co-author of the report. “Lawmakers can do this by capping sentences for the most serious offenses at 20 years and shifting sentences for all other offenses proportionately downward, including by decriminalizing some acts.”

In addition, the new report argues for the abolition of the death penalty and life sentences without the possibility of parole; the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences, giving judges discretion — what an incredible idea! — to consider mitigating circumstances; the elimination of consecutive sentences; the creation of “second look” resentencing that allows an inmate to go before a judge after 10 years to assess the appropriateness of the original sentence, and declassifying certain crimes as felonies.

The Sentencing Project conducts credible research and makes a lot of good points about the serious flaws in our sentencing, prison and parole systems. For decades, it has tackled something that should weigh on the conscience of all Americans — that we have one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration; in some surveys, the highest. The Sentencing Project believes we should do something about that, and if you’ve read this column, you know I agree.

But, while I support many of the organization’s suggestions, I don’t think we should be arbitrarily shaving sentences, especially for crimes of violence. That’s not how we reduce the number of people in prison and make our violence-scarred society safer.

Too much of this discussion is about sentencing when it should really be about rehabilitation of those who are sentenced. Too many legislative hearings pit prosecutors against progressives in a tiresome debate about mandatory minimums when both sides should be working toward what’s known as restorative justice — putting corrections back in the corrections system.

All prisons, state and federal, should be turned inside out and restructured to be intensely therapeutic from the moment an inmate arrives. The idea of a “second look” after 10 years is great, but if the inmate has not been treated for what ailed him — violence, anger, poor reasoning and communication skills, abysmal self-esteem, drug addiction — then no judge will be impressed enough to reduce his sentence. Same with the parole process: It’s a waste of time to put men or women through a review, with the hope of early release, if they’ve been given no help to become a better human being.

I’d be OK with five years for an illegal handgun if we can be assured that, at the end of the inmate’s time in a Maryland prison, he’ll emerge with a plan for the future that does not include a deadly weapon.


I’ve said all this before, but I don’t apologize for the repetition because it’s an issue worthy of our best work — that, in one or two generations, we could turn our prisons into places that, while punishing criminals by depriving them of freedom, provide a real second chance for men and women who got off to a bad start in life.

The path to restorative justice has been marked; progressives in Baltimore and Annapolis have already notched some good reforms. They need to do more, and legislators need to listen. Maryland could lead the nation by investing funds in turning our prisons inside out, hiring a small army of social workers, psychologists and vocational specialists to change lives behind the walls.

We don’t have the money? We should look hard at how we’re spending it now — last I checked, it was about $46,000 per inmate per year — and ask what we’re getting for it. Are we any safer? Are we closing down the revolving door that, for decades, created thousands of repeat offenders, many of them violent?

Five years, 20 years, life — time is not the point. What we do with it is.