Maryland could save nearly $250 million over the next 10 years by reducing its prison population by 3,600 beds under a proposal that makes sweeping changes to the state’s parole and probation system and slight adjustments to sentencing guidelines.
The Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council on Wednesday discussed its preliminary suggestions on reducing incarceration and recidivism to help draw down correction costs.
“A lot of work has gone into this,” said Christopher B. Shank, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and chairman of the council, noting the dozens of hours of testimony and volumes of data the panel has reviewed.
The council’s suggestions include: lowering the eligibility age for geriatric parole from 65 to 60; offering drug offenders the same number of credits to reduce their sentences as are given to other nonviolent offenders; and reducing the amount of time parolees can return to prison for a so-called technical violation.
But Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Hackner said he worried about taking away a judge’s discretion in deciding how much time a parolee or probationer is given for a violation.
Violators would receive up to 15 days for the first revocation and up to 45 days for the third revocation under the recommendations. A judge or the parole commission could impose the remainder of a person’s sentence for the fourth technical revocation or for any non-technical violation, such as an arrest or conviction.
“Sentencing is a complex fabric,” he said. “My concern is by essentially handcuffing the judges, you’ll see sentences longer on the front end.”
Shank said the one change in the parole process was a big cost saver. Researchers from the Pew Charitable Trust, who have been working with the council to collect and analyze data, said the change makes up at least one-third of the overall savings.
The largest portion of the meeting and the most emotional was about the state’s sentencing policies, specifically its mandatory-minimum sentences. Several members of the panel said the committee had not gone far enough in addressing the disparities in the criminal justice system under the state’s current mandatory-minimum guidelines.
Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s) said 87 percent of the inmates serving mandatory-minimum sentences in Maryland are African American.
“I don’t see how we move forward without addressing such a blatantly failed policy,” Barron said, noting that the policy’s original purpose was to relieve “unwarranted disparities” in sentencing.
The council is offering some changes in sentencing.
For example, it is suggesting that the state eliminate the disparities in penalties for crack and powder cocaine. Maryland is one of only 13 states that punish crack cocaine offenders more severely than powder cocaine offenders.
It also recommends allowing the 1,700 inmates who are serving mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses to be eligible to apply for resentencing. Lawmakers passed a bill this year that got rid of mandatory-minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.
Barron said the sentences should be eliminated, if not drastically changed.
Scott Shellenberger, who is with the Baltimore County State’s Attorney office, said the council has to be realistic in its recommendations. Others noted major changes in sentencing would be difficult to get through the General Assembly.
“Don’t shoot for the moon,” Shellenberger said. “Be happy we made it to California.”
The council, which is made up of lawmakers, judges, lawyers and members of law enforcement, is one of three panels that have reviewed policing and criminal justice policies in Maryland over the past several months.
One committee recently made recommendations on the use of body cameras, and a legislative panel is reviewing police hiring and training and the process in dealing with charges of brutality.
The bipartisan council plans to finish its work this month and provide its report to the General Assembly to consider changes in legislation.