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Maryland justice reform at risk

When researchers from the Pew Charitable Trusts came to Maryland to study the state's criminal justice system, they had already done similar deep-dives into crime and punishment in more than two dozen states. They came at the request of Maryland's top leaders, and they were armed with a vast body of research into what practices contribute to public safety and which ones are wasteful.

In Maryland, they found a substantial number of the latter, and over the course of several months, they worked with a broad, bipartisan coalition representing the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government to craft a package of reforms that the group adopted as unanimous consensus recommendations. It was grounded both in the experience of other states that have substantially reduced prison populations and in an understanding of how Maryland's courts and prisons work, and it was expected to save about a quarter-billion dollars over 10 years — money that would be reinvested in programs proven to prevent crime and reduce recidivism.

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That's why the public should join Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller in questioning a series of amendments adopted by his chamber's Judicial Proceedings Committee that Pew estimates would drop the projected savings to just $34 million over the next 10 years and result in no reduction to the prison population. If the changes aren't reversed, we risk missing an opportunity to reorient our criminal justice system away from the harsh and arbitrary punishments that characterized the war on drugs and toward one grounded in principles of rehabilitation and reintegration for criminals.

The most significant amendments deal with two elements of the reform package related to when and how nonviolent offenders receive parole and to the way the system handles violations of parole for those who have been released.

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When Pew researchers looked at Maryland's system, they found something curious. Generally speaking, nonviolent offenders are initially eligible for parole when they have completed 25 percent of their sentences, and violent offenders after 50 percent. But the violent offenders were getting out much closer to their eligibility date than nonviolent ones. Many nonviolent offenders were sitting in prison for months longer than necessary not because they were deemed a threat but because they were waiting for a hearing with the parole board. What the reform would have done is to set up a system of "administrative parole" for such offenders, meaning that if they followed the rules in prison and if no victim of their crimes objected, the default would be to release them on their eligibility date.

Pew researchers found a great deal of arbitrariness when it came to the consequences when former inmates committed technical violations of their parole — for example, missing or coming late to an appointment with a parole supervisor or a failed drug test. Sometimes nothing happened after such violations, and sometimes parolees were sent back to prison for long stretches. But what the research shows is that swift, certain and proportional responses to such violations are what works best to reduce recidivism — say, for example, a requirement that a parolee report more often after a first, minor violation, escalating to more and more jail time for subsequent violations.

The committee amendments make crucial changes that erase the benefits of both provisions. They limit administrative parole to just those deemed at low risk to reoffend, but those were not the inmates who were causing the logjam at the parole board, and the research found that it was those deemed at higher risk to reoffend who benefited most from the added supports and services attached to the program. As for probation violations, the amendments would allow judges to override the standard sanctions in cases when they considered an offender to pose a public safety risk or for an unspecified "good cause." The point of this reform was to remove the subjectivity to the process, and this amendment reintroduces it.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, the Judicial Proceedings Committee chairman, says the changes are necessary to ensure public safety, but the research and the experience of other states say otherwise. What the changes do is to provide the opportunity for Maryland's criminal justice system to keep doing what it's doing, and if it has that chance, it will.

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The issue here not really whether Maryland saves $34 million over 10 years or $250 million. It's whether people are stuck in prison for longer than they need to be for no good reason, or whether they're sent back there arbitrarily for offenses that did not put the public at risk. The legislation the General Assembly considered was already the product of long discussions and hard compromises — ideas like the elimination of certain mandatory minimum sentences didn't make the consensus recommendation in the first place, even though most members of the Justice Reinvestment Council supported them. Parallel legislation is moving through the House of Delegates, and leaders in both chambers have expressed a desire to get this one right. For the sake of the state's residents, not to mention its bottom line, they need to reverse these changes and enact meaningful reforms this year.

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