A panel reviewing ways to reduce recidivism and lower prison costs in Maryland is being urged to examine pretrial detention, bail and other parts of the justice system that inmates encounter before entering state prisons.
The push to expand the scope of the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council is coming from some of its members who recently were presented with data that show black men serve longer prison sentences in Maryland than white men who commit similar crimes.
Christopher B. Shank, the chairman of the council and executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, called the figures “disturbing.” He said the council will take a “deeper dive” into the data presented by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which eventually could lead to proposals for new laws or policies.
“We can’t solve problems unless we know what they are,” said Shank, a Republican who during his time as a state senator from Washington County worked closely with Democrats on marijuana-decriminalization legislation.
“Right now, what we know is there is a disparity,” he said. “We’re asking the research team, ‘What is driving this?’ ”
The Pew data, from fiscal 2014, show that white offenders served an average of 41.5 months, while black offenders, served an average of 54.5 months — a disparity of more than a year. For drug crimes, white offenders served an average of 23.4 months, while black offenders served an average of 35.5 months. Possession of drugs with the intent to distribute is the No. 1 reason people in Maryland are sentenced to state prison, according to Pew’s analysis.
The data come amid a growing national discussion about sentencing disparities between black and white men, especially among nonviolent offenders. In a speech at the NAACP convention this month, President Obama called for changes in the criminal justice system to eliminate such differences.
The bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, which consists of Maryland lawmakers, senior-level government officials, attorneys and law enforcement representatives, was created to find ways to help offenders re-enter society successfully. The goal is to reduce recidivism and the state’s prison population.
Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), who is a member of the council, said he is hoping that when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, it will consider a comprehensive reform package based on the work of the council and legislative panels that are looking at best practices for police body cameras and examining police accountability.
Members of the council said they were not shocked by the Pew numbers, which mirror figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on both the federal and state prison populations. According to a 2013 federal report, black men ages 25 to 39 are imprisoned at a rate six times greater than white men. Between the ages of 18 to 19, the rate is nine times greater.
The only area where white offenders in Maryland served longer sentences than black offenders was for property crimes, an offense for which white offenders are more likely to be in prison. For property crimes, whites serve an average of 32.7 months, whiled blacks served an average of 30.8 months.
Committee members said they want to explore what is driving the disparities in Maryland and figure out ways to address the differences. “It’s disturbing,” Barron said of the findings. “These are real, actual, reliable numbers, not just anecdotes.”
Barron, who is a lawyer, and other attorneys who have represented black defendants said they have seen instances where a defendant who can’t afford to pay bail ends up at a disadvantage in sentencing, either because he pleads guilty in hopes of getting released more quickly or faces bias in court because he has been incarcerated while awaiting trail.
“In the state of Maryland, you get treated better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent,” said Charles H. Dorsey III, deputy public defender for the state. “A lot of it has to do with economics, but race as well.”
Dorsey blamed the disparities on racial bias from sentencing judges, money bail and crowded court dockets.
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), a member of the panel and vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said she believes that pretrial issues such as bail and being held in jail in advance of a trial are “a major driver” of the disparities.
According to the Pretrial Justice Institute, defendants of color are given higher bail amounts and are detained more often than white defendants. The institute says that more than 60 percent of the people in jails across the country have not been convicted but are awaiting trial in jail because they can’t afford the cash bail.
“If we are serious about addressing these numbers, we have to look at pretrial detention,” Dumais said.
But with the council’s main focus so far having been sentencing, parole and community-based alternatives to incarceration, Shanks said the council may not make recommendations on bail and other pretrial issues until after the 2016 legislative session.
Douglas A. Berman, a professor and sentencing expert at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said the answer to what is driving the disparities is not simple. It could be racial bias, the criminal history of the defendants or an inability to make cash bail. “There isn’t an easy, silver-bullet solution,” Berman said. “Simple solutions tend to make complex problems worse.”