correction: This post has been updated.
Neill Franklin, executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, spent 23 years with the Maryland State Police and 11 with the Baltimore Police Department, where he was commander of the education and training division and the bureau of drug and criminal enforcement.
In its closing weeks, the Maryland legislature passed a mixed bag of public safety policies, many of which aren’t likely to make a dent in Baltimore’s murder rate or drug overdose deaths. Despite offering expungement for some felony charges 15 years after an offender serves a sentence, the Hogan-Zirkin crime package included regressive policies that represent a failed approach to public safety by relying on long, mandatory minimum sentences. That may sound appealing on the surface, but long sentences for violent criminals or drug dealers don’t make anyone safer.
Like most public safety legislation, the Comprehensive Crime Bill of 2018, introduced by state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), was motivated by noble intentions. Sadly, noble intentions aren’t always backed by research. In this case, research points to a negligible public safety benefit.
These laws are likely to cause a substantial increase in corrections costs.
Our state will spend $202 million of taxpayers’ money for a new prison. While some touted the bill’s allocation to crime prevention, the amount was incredibly small in comparison — a mere $12 million.
Why spend almost 17 times more to lock people up than to prevent crime in the first place? This strategy fails to protect innocent people from being victimized.
More than 200 police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors around the nation support decreasing our prison population with smart strategies over punitive measures. Mandatory minimums are not in line with American values. Enhanced sentences do not work. We have long held pride in our judicial system for giving judges discretion, but this bill would have circumvented judges’ authority and years of experience by depriving them of the ability to examine all aspects of a case.
Studies show longer sentences have minimal to no effectiveness in reducing recidivism. In fact, the opposite is true: Research shows a strong correlation between increased prison time and repeat offenses, putting the community at further risk of violence and property crimes. According to “The Right Investment? Corrections Spending in Baltimore City,” the cost of imprisoning one person for a year could instead pay for drug treatment for eight adults, employment training for seven people, housing for 30 families and GED courses for 37 people — all of which would make it less likely that any of those people helped would resort to crime. Preventing crime before it happens is always the best strategy.
We spend hundreds of millions of dollars to lock up Maryland residents rather than invest in their long-term well-being is reflected in the array of challenges facing Maryland communities. The communities where taxpayers spend the most on incarceration are in need of different resources. These communities represent the greatest opportunity for more effective investments that will more likely promote community well-being and result in safer neighborhoods.
Surveys show crime survivors would choose policy responses to public safety challenges that are very different from what this bill proposed. A recent national survey by the Alliance for Safety and Justice showed that about 60 percent of crime survivors believed prevention and rehabilitation programs were the most effective ways to deal with convicted criminals; only 6 percent prefer spending on prisons and jails. Victims overwhelmingly prefer investment in education, job creation, mental-health treatment, at-risk youth programs, drug rehabilitation and community supervision instead of incarceration. While the new law expands risk assessments of inmates to better identify mental-health needs, it falls short of prioritizing mental-health care that prevents rather than responds to crime.
Rather than continuing to invest in failed approaches even crime survivors don’t want, lawmakers should double down on effective, smart-on-crime strategies to help improve community safety. Lawmakers can embrace more effective approaches in response to repeat offenses that do not rely on prison or jail and fit with crime survivors’ preferences. Some of these approaches include targeting resources to help rehabilitate people on probation or parole and investing wisely in job-creation and violence-prevention programs where the communities need them.
As a retired Maryland law enforcement officer, I am deeply concerned about am deeply concerned about our legislature enacting long prison sentences under the false premise that they’re effective.
History has also demonstrated that the jobs of already-overworked police officers would become more difficult in underserved black and brown communities as recidivism and incarceration rates increase. Underprepared people will leave prison believing their only hope for survival is returning to a life of crime. And the police who put themselves in harm’s way will struggle further to meet the needs of the people they serve.
Though I support some provisions in the Comprehensive Crime Bill, I cannot support any policy strategy that prioritizes political expediency over evidence- and research-based public safety solutions — and, unfortunately, that’s exactly what lengthy mandatory prison sentences do. Though the bills passed look vastly different from the crime bill first introduced by the governor, I fear these original refuted policies will be reintroduced next year, and that’s unacceptable.