A new report by the Justice Policy Institute highlights a shameful Maryland reality: Though we claim to be a progressive state working toward equity for all, we continue to disproportionately target black residents for prosecution and punishment — at double the rate of the rest of the country. This, despite a purposeful reduction in our overall state prison population amid various justice reform efforts.
Clearly, we’re not doing enough.
The JPI report, released Wednesday, shows that 71% percent of Maryland’s prison population is black, even though just 31% of the state’s total population is. We beat out both Mississippi (67%) and Georgia (61%) in this proportion — states with higher percentages of black residents than Maryland, at 38% and 32% respectively.
Of course, the rest of the country is failing miserably as well; we’re just slightly better at doing a bad job. On average, 32% of the American prison population is black, compared with 13% of the country’s population.
Though skin color alone is no more a predictor of bad behavior than hair or eye color is, such racial disparities persist through every step of the criminal justice system, with blacks more likely than whites to be questioned, arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to harsher penalties for the same crimes.
Maryland is a leader on that last point, as well: Roughly 80% of those serving sentences of 10 years or more are black; worse, 41% of them were sentenced as “emerging adults” between the ages of 18 and 24 — a population we know is less likely to make well-reasoned decisions on the fly. They’re more likely to take risks, act impulsively, be influenced by peers and fail to account for consequences in decision making as their brains continue to develop into their mid-20s.
We’ve recognized the limitations in judgment for emerging adults in some areas, raising the legal smoking age in the state this year to 21, for example. But instead of taking it into account as a mitigating factor in the criminal justice system, we’re sentencing young offenders to lengthy terms in the adult prison system with little opportunity for rehabilitation or much of a life once they get out.
Meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan is calling for an increase in prosecutions in majority-black Baltimore City, which already accounts for a third of the state’s prison population, even as other research shows more incarceration — at an average cost of about $46,000 per prisoner in Maryland, according to the state Division of Correction — doesn’t lead to a safer society. According to a 2017 report from the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City, increased incarceration has little to no impact on violent crime, but it does destroy families and communities.
The messages we’re getting are, to say the least, mixed. Maryland appeared to set off on a good path in 2016, with the passage of the Justice Reinvestment Act, which largely sought to divert non-violent drug offenders to treatment rather than prison. It had the effect of dropping the state’s prison population 13% since 2014, but we still have too many people behind bars for too long, especially people of color.
So what do we do? We reset our thinking from a punishment-based justice system to a prevention-based one. That’s the long-term, big-picture reform Maryland has yet to undertake: putting most of its justice resources into communities depressed by generations of oppression to provide opportunities for education, employment and hope that will help keep people from turning to substances or crime to get by.
JPI also recommends boosting the state’s probation system so younger offenders can be appropriately supervised in the community, rather than in prison, and supporting organizations such as Roca, which works with high-risk young people to break cycles of violence, crime and incarceration.
Maryland also should explore raising the age of its juvenile jurisdiction beyond 18, as Vermont has done, and Connecticut, Massachusetts and Illinois considered. Last year, Washington, D.C., also amended its Youth Rehabilitation Act to raise the eligibility age to 25 from 22; the act allows for shorter sentences and expunged records for emerging adults convicted of certain crimes.
Maryland prisons spokesman Mark Vernarelli told The Sun’s Jessica Anderson that the system strives to make decisions that are “driven by research, data-informed and in the best interest of our communities and public safety.”
We take him at his word and expect to see a push from the state to better align its actions with its goals.