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Md. justice reforms a first step

Op-ed: Md. JRCC recommendations are first — not final — step toward overhauling state criminal jus

As Baltimore and the nation reeled in response to the mistrial a week ago in the first case of police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, Maryland's Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, or JRCC, made recommendations to Gov. Larry Hogan on how to reform Maryland's criminal justice system.

The JRCC recommended some laudable and important policy reforms that would reduce sentences for some offenders, increase parole grant rates and strengthen supervision, particularly removing some of the many barriers to reentry into society. But it is critical that we recognize these recommendations as a first — not final — step toward confronting all the ugly realities plaguing Maryland's criminal justice system.

Nationwide, there are more Americans in state and federal prisons than ever before; nearly 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated, which is more than six times the average rate across developed nations. But the incarceration rate does not hit everyone equally. Communities of color, and particularly men of color, are more likely to be behind bars than other groups. In fact, black men are six times more likely, and Latino men 2.5 times more likely, to be incarcerated than white men.

But the size and cost of incarceration is not just a national problem; it's a Maryland problem. According to the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, state still incarcerates more than 20,000 offenders at an annual cost of nearly $1.4 billion in corrections spending.

The JRCC has spent the last six months analyzing the drivers of Maryland's prison population and recidivism outcomes, and the findings were stark. While Maryland has achieved a modest 5 percent decline in the state prison population, average sentence lengths and time served have increased over the last decade for all types of offenses.

The rise in time served behind bars is significant. The JRCC found that over the last decade, the average sentence length for newly sentenced Maryland prisoners increased by 25 percent, and time served grew by 23 percent. Disturbingly, the JRCC found that these trends have a disproportionate impact on Maryland's black offenders. Sentences for black offenders are longer, and release on parole less likely, contributing to an average time served that is 30 percent longer for black prisoners than for white prisoners.

Ultimately, the next generation is paying the price for over-incarceration. According to a new report by the Center for the American Progress, nearly half of all children in the U.S. now have at least one parent with a criminal record. How a child will fare in adulthood has strong ties to his or her childhood. But when a parent has a criminal record, the barriers that parent faces in society — such as barriers to employment, education, and housing — impact his or her children's ability to develop and eventually escape poverty.

This is not an abstract problem in Maryland. At a JRCC stakeholders meeting in November, Marylanders spoke of how the criminal justice system affects their personal lives. One woman, for example, had struggled with addiction and had a relapse, but when she asked for help, she was rearrested and sentenced to over 13 years in prison. These practices have reverberations for the children and families of incarcerated individuals, and we must take a more holistic approach to criminal justice reform — one that recognizes that the criminal justice system impacts the children and families of incarcerated individuals as well.

Leaders representing both sides of the aisle are coming together to address the growing jail and prison populations in meaningful ways by ending the systemic problems of over-criminalization and over-incarceration — particularly of low-income communities and communities of color.

The JRCC's proposed reforms are an example of this bipartisan unity, and, according to estimates, will cut the state's prison population by 14 percent. These recommendations — such as retroactively applying the mandatory minimum safety valve, which allows courts to sentence beneath the mandatory minimum for drug offenses in certain instances — represent a meaningful step in the right direction to addressing Maryland's criminal justice challenges. But Maryland — like the nation — must continue do more.

Governor Hogan, the Maryland legislature and the JRCC must unite around ensuring that we are taking criminal justice reform in Maryland seriously by implementing the JRCC reforms and continuing to build upon that work. We have the roadmap for meaningful change, and now is the time to make those solutions real.

Michele Jawando is the vice president of legal progress at the Center for American Progress and a Silver Spring Resident; her email is mjawando@americanprogress.org.

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