A panel tasked with finding ways to reduce incarceration and recidivism began its work Monday by hearing how other states have changed sentencing policies to help control correction costs.
“For too many individuals, incarceration becomes a way of life, in which they flounder in a cycle of recidivism. It is clear we need a new direction in how we supervise offenders,” said Christopher B. Shank, chairman of the council and head of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. “The current revolving door of the criminal justice system is a drain on our economy. We need these individuals to be contributing members of their communities. The justice reinvestment process will ensure prison beds are reserved for the most serious criminals and low-level offenders are supervised through community-based programs that are proven to be effective.”
Maryland is the 30th state to take on a similar task, Shank said.
The Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, which consists of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, senior-level government officials, attorneys and law enforcement representatives is one of three panels meeting this summer to look at issues related to policing and sentencing reform.
One committee is reviewing best practices for police body cameras. Another is studying police hiring, recruiting and training.
The three panels are expected to submit their findings to the legislature in December, which could set the stage for major reform considered in the next legislative session.
The panel heard from representatives from the Pew Charitable Trust, who will assist the state in analyzing data, about its recent work in Mississippi and Utah. The assistance is part of a public-private partnership between Pew and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Pew found that half of all felony offenders in Mississippi were serving prison sentences and the majority of the growth were from property and drug offenders. Among other things, the state expanded its eligibility for prison alternatives, including probation and drug courts, and raised the felony thefts threshold for property crimes. Estimates are that all of the state’s efforts will save the state $266 million over 10 years, Pew said.
Shank described the council’s work as the “most ambitious and transformative” of any commission he has seen during his 16 years in Annapolis. Maryland has a recidivism rate of 40 percent and has 20,700 offenders incarcerated.
In addition to the bill that formed the panel, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) last month signed a bill that allows ex-offenders to shield court and police records regarding certain offenses, to make it easier for them to get jobs. He also allowed two bills that change sentencing guidelines to be enacted without his signature. One repeals mandatory minimum sentencing for some offenses and gives judges greater discretion meting punishment. The other allows offenders to expunge certain crimes from their records.
“We must ensure that every Maryland tax dollar spent on our criminal justice system delivers the highest public safety return on investment,” Hogan said.