A Maryland panel on Thursday endorsed a major shift in sentencing drug offenders, recommending sentencing guidelines that focus more heavily on treatment than incarceration for people charged with possession.
The recommendation is one of more than 25 proposals that the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council voted to forward to the General Assembly. The changes could save $247 million over the next 10 years in state prison costs, the council said.
“Our goal is to end the revolving door of inmates cycling in and out of prison,” said Christopher B. Shank, the chairman of the council and the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. “I look forward to continuing this important work in the coming months, as the Hogan administration and the General Assembly consider legislation that would put these long-needed reforms into place.”
If the changes are enacted by state lawmakers, Maryland would join nearly a dozen other states, including Georgia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, that have overhauled their criminal justice systems — at least in part to reduce the costs of housing prisoners.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who helped create the panel, said the recommendations provide “a road map to make our streets safer and save millions in taxpayer dollars.”
The council was tasked with finding ways to help offenders reenter society more successfully and ultimately reduce recidivism and the prison population. It included lawmakers from both parties, senior-level government officials, lawyers and law enforcement representatives.
The panel examined why Maryland, which spent $1.3 billion on corrections in fiscal 2014, has experienced large drops in violent and property crime rates over the past decade but only modest changes to the size of its prison population.
It found that nonviolent offenders make up 58 percent of all prison admissions. Almost 60 percent of those sent to prison are there because of violations of parole or probation, many of which are technical in nature. Sentence lengths are up 25 percent in the past decade, and just 37 percent of offenders receive parole.
The council recommended that a person who is sentenced for a first-time drug offense be given drug treatment or up to 12 months of jail time. A fourth offense would receive drug treatment or up to 24 months of jail time. Under current law, a first-time offender could receive up to four years in prison.
Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), a member of the council, said the proposal is “smarter on crime, but not tough on crime . . . a reorientation towards public health instead of just simply law and order.”
Other proposals that would help reduce the state prison population by 3,960 beds over the next decade 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 be given for a technical violation.
The panel also recommends that the state eliminate the disparities in penalties for crack and powder cocaine. Maryland is one of 13 states that still punish crack cocaine offenders more severely than powder cocaine violators, according to researchers from the Pew Charitable Trust, which worked with the council to collect and analyze data.
“We’re in the first inning of a long game,” Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), a member of the council and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, told the council, referring to the work that will be needed to get the changes passed by the General Assembly next year.
Some advocates for criminal justice overhauls pushed for even bolder steps to reduce the prison population, including eliminating mandatory minimums for all nonviolent offenses except those involving a gun and reducing sentences for “commercial” drug offenders — those who sell drugs or intend to sell or distribute.
Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, said the council offered a “good package that moves Maryland in the right direction.” He said he would consider it a “strong package” if the recommendations included getting rid of mandatory minimums and easing penalties for commercial drug sales.
Barron said the legislature has an opportunity to “go big” by reducing the sentences given to people convicted of possession with intent to distribute, which is the No. 1 reason people are sentenced to prison, and by eliminating mandatory minimums.
Such changes, Barron said, would reduce racial disparities in the prison population, where 87 percent of prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences are African American, and increase the amount of money available for drug treatment and reentry programs.
“Simply put, our system would be more fair,” the lawmaker said.
The council suggested that the General Assembly consider changes in sentencing for possession with intent to distribute but did not offer the idea as a recommendation in its report.