Maryland legislators recently took an important first step toward improved public safety by introducing the Justice Reinvestment Act. This package of common-sense reforms will reduce Maryland’s unnecessarily large prison population, freeing up several hundred million dollars to expand reentry and treatment resources badly needed across the state. We urge enactment of this historic legislation.
We also believe the final bill should be strengthened by including more comprehensive changes to Maryland’s drug sentencing laws. Specifically, mandatory sentencing provisions in the Maryland Code should be repealed and sentences for drug sales should be reduced consistent with research on the negligible impact of long sentences on public safety. By seizing this opportunity for long-overdue reform, the General Assembly can make the Maryland criminal-justice system fairer and more effective for everyone.
The Justice Reinvestment Act reflects the work of the bipartisan Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council (JRCC), established by the legislature last year to “develop a statewide framework of sentencing and corrections policies to safely reduce Maryland’s incarcerated population, control corrections spending and reinvest in more effective, less expensive strategies to increase public safety and reduce recidivism.”
Following a lengthy and rigorous process that included a thorough review of justice system data and input from advocates and community members, the JRCC issued a final report with recommendations to the state legislature. It is estimated that these reforms would produce nearly $250 million in correctional savings that could be redirected to drug and mental-health treatment, housing, job training, better community supervision for people released from prison and other proven approaches to make communities safer.
The Justice Reinvestment Act includes useful changes to drug sentencing laws, but proposals to repeal mandatory minimums and to revise sentences for drug sales were not included in the final set of recommendations because they did not achieve the same level of consensus. Nonetheless, these fundamental reforms are consistent with the goals of the JRCC and should be included in the final package during legislative deliberations.
Mandatory minimum sentencing — in which the legislature sets a floor below which a judge cannot set the sentence — is a fatally flawed policy. Sentences should be imposed by judges in individual cases, not by legislators in categories of cases. Mandatory-sentencing laws are not truly mandatory, but the discretion to avoid them rests with prosecutors rather than with neutral judges. By depriving judges of needed discretion, mandatory minimums unnecessarily ratchet up the length of sentences, costing taxpayers millions of dollars with little benefit to public safety.
There is no research to demonstrate that mandatory minimum sentences reduce crime. Meanwhile, mandatory sentencing laws produce unacceptable racial disparities. A disproportionate number of African American is affected, contributing to the destabilization of African American neighborhoods.
The public favors changing these laws. Seventy percent of Maryland voters support repeal of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, and 78 percent of Maryland voters agree that the state spends too much money locking up nonviolent drug offenders.
Mandatory sentencing is one of the major contributors to the phenomenon of mass incarceration, which is a problem across the United States, not just in Maryland. As a result of inflated mandatory sentences and other misguided policies, there are now more than 2 million people in federal and state prisons and jails. The U.S. incarceration rate far exceeds that of other democratic countries. The University of Baltimore School of Law, with generous support from the Abell Foundation, has undertaken efforts to address the causes of mass incarceration, including unwise sentencing laws.
Mandatory minimum and other drug sentencing reforms belong in the Justice Reinvestment Act, which is designed to rationalize the way the state allocates scarce resources. The final bill should include bold changes to sentencing laws in order to increase year-to-year savings, allowing more constructive and sustained investments in Baltimore and other economically challenged communities.
Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. Ronald Weich is dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law.