Larry Stafford is the executive director of Progressive Maryland.
When it comes to smart justice in Maryland, the Legislature and our state’s leaders have failed us with misguided efforts to roll back programs that we know are working. This leaves us with one place to look for hope in ensuring a fair and equitable criminal-justice system: our state’s attorney.
Within the past three years alone, Maryland made great strides toward an effective and compassionate criminal-justice system. In large part because of the reforms made by the Justice Reinvestment Act, Maryland prison populations decreased nearly 10 percent. In implementing these policies, the state also redirected savings from reduced prison costs to programs that address the root causes of crime and help keep people out of the criminal justice system while saving taxpayers millions.
Despite our success, in the most recent session, our state leaders succumbed to political pressure over data-based policies. Maryland lawmakers flexed their “tough-on-crime” muscles, passing several bills that threaten that progress.
But in Prince George’s County, we have the opportunity to elect a state’s attorney committed to ending mass incarceration. We can elect someone who knows that a prosecutor can be the benefactor of empathy and second chances, not just the administrator of punishment and promoter of the school-to-prison pipeline. Prosecutors are implementing forward-thinking policies all over the country — in Philadelphia, in Houston, in Denver. We should add our name to this list.
State’s attorneys have immense power inside and outside of the courtroom. They decide if and when to pursue charges, whether to charge children as adults and even the length of a prison sentence. They also play a role in bail decisions, deciding whether to ask for release, no-bond holds or a high cash bond.
And when they’re not in the courtroom, state’s attorneys carry enormous influence with legislators as they debate criminal justice reforms.
In the past, we have seen troubling policies out of the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Office.
Though departing head Angela Alsobrooks purports to be an advocate for bail reform, according to data at the Vera Institute of Justice, as of 2015, people charged but not convicted spent an average of almost 30 days in jail before trial. Alsobrooks came into office promising to aggressively prosecute quality-of-life offenses — incidents that pose no public safety threat to our community and can be handled out of the criminal justice system. She has foolishly linked marijuana decriminalization to a rise in murders and violent crime, lamenting that police have lost a reason to search people. And our diversion options — critical specialty programs that keep people out of the criminal justice system and record free by providing an alternative to incarceration — are extremely limited.
Prince George’s County is ready for a state’s attorney who will implement proven policies to reduce incarceration and improve public safety rather than promote outdated and ineffective “tough on crime” strategies.
In Prince George’s County, our communities have been hit by the scourge of opioid addiction. The state’s attorney must treat addiction as a public-health problem, not a crime.
Across Maryland, people who have not been convicted of a crime sit in jail waiting for a trial because they can’t afford bail. Our next state’s attorney should seek to reform our cash bail system, ending archaic rules that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income individuals.
In the past, our state’s attorney’s office has operated in secrecy behind closed doors. It’s time our state’s attorney embrace transparency and release data about charging decisions and sentencing requests so the public can hold them accountable.
The state’s attorney must not only hold community members accountable, but also our police who shoot unarmed citizens, stop people of color without cause and falsify or withhold evidence in violation of constitutional rights.
The state’s attorney should recognize that children should be treated like children and kept out of adult court in all but the rarest of cases. Many of our young people are often charged with quality-of-life offenses — possession of certain drugs — that should be handled outside of the criminal-justice system to help get them back on the right path.
These ideas aren’t experimental or extreme. Rather, these reforms have been proved time and again across the country to create more effective and fairer criminal-justice system.
We should demand nothing less here at home, and look to the new state’s attorney to usher in a new era based on evidence, not political rhetoric. There’s too much at stake.