As violence in Baltimore continues at unacceptably high levels, city residents are desperate for solutions. Unfortunately, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has proposed crime bills that sound tough but that won’t actually reduce crime. Stealing a page from the Trump-Sessions playbook, the governor’s plan relies on lengthy mandatory-minimum prison sentences. This approach will waste taxpayer dollars and exacerbate racial disparities in the state’s prisons without making the public safer.
2017 was a record-setting year in Baltimore — and not in a good way. The city’s murder rate reached an all-time high as violent crime in the rest of Maryland and in many other major cities around the country fell. While residents and some crime experts point to the city’s beleaguered and scandal-ridden police department and a lack of job opportunities as possible causes, some officials, including Hogan, say the state simply needs to lock up more people for mandatory prison terms.
Legislation sponsored by the governor would increase the length of mandatory-minimum sentences and increase the number of crimes to which they would be applied; decrease access to treatment; and transfer youth to adult court where we know they don’t receive the education, support or services they need to return to society as contributing, responsible, adults. This is certainly one approach to fighting violent crime, but it’s not the right one.
The governor’s proposals fly in the face of the best available research on what works. Indeed, his new bills contradict the bipartisan, evidence-based reforms that Maryland lawmakers adopted and he praised and signed as part of the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2016. Those reforms sought to target crime with precise and proportional penalties, not crude, one-size-fits-all mandatory-minimum sentences. Those reforms also sought to invest anti-crime funding into substance abuse treatment and other effective interventions that support and hold accountable people who are involved in the justice system, so we decrease, rather than increase, the rates of violence and crime.
The governor’s crime plans reflect an outdated model of fighting crime, one that reflects a desire to “do something” and to look tough. Yet there is little evidence to suggest his plans for longer, mandatory sentences will work. The Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice has found that it is the certainty of being caught and the swiftness of the response, not the length of the sentence, that deters future crime. This fact explains why cities with record-low crime rates, like New York City, have pursued tactics such as “hot spot” policing that target high-crime street corners and focusing resources on closing cases and getting convictions.
Mandatory-minimum sentencing laws for gun-related crimes have a particularly poor track record. In 2013, a report from the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern School of Law found concluded that mandatory-minimum sentences do not reduce gun violence. The report was based on a meta-analysis review of 29 studies on programs designed to reduce gun crimes. Mandatory-minimum gun laws, like our drug laws, are good at locking up lots of people, especially people of color, but not effective at reducing crime.
The communities most affected by rising violence want and deserve a comprehensive response that serves those communities’ long-term safety and health needs. These communities are home to both perpetrators and victims of violent crime, and they want justice and healing for everyone. Eighty-year-old Baltimore City councilwoman Rikki Spector, the victim of a carjacking by two teens, understands what is needed. Rather than ask the judge for long sentences in the adult system, she decided to seek justice another way, joining forces with community advocates and becoming the teens’ mentor. “They’re our children,” she said. “They walk where we walk. If they’re going to do bad, they’re going to be doing bad where we are.”
She is not alone in thinking about the long term. By a margin of nearly three to one, crime survivors surveyed nationwide believe that prison is more likely to make people commit further crimes rather than rehabilitate them. Sixty percent think we should be focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
To make Baltimore safe again, city, state and community leaders must avoid failed approaches of the past and reject the governor’s crime bills. Instead, these leaders should work together to invest in proven interventions for those most at risk of criminal behavior. They should help and support victims and their families, and address the unmet education, employment, housing and health-care needs in Baltimore’s most vulnerable communities.
Marc Schindler is Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute. Kevin Ring is President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.