MARYLAND IS not among the nation’s leaders in per capita incarceration; that indignity belongs mainly to Southern states. But with a prison census exceeding 20,000 — not counting thousands more in local jails — it retains a substantial population behind bars and suffers the attendant drain on state resources. In the current fiscal year, Annapolis is spending $1.3 billion on corrections, roughly 8 percent of all tax-supported spending and the fastest-growing chunk of the state budget after Medicaid.
While the number of people sentenced to prison terms in Maryland has fallen by 19 percent over the past decade, the prison population has fallen by much less: just 5 percent. The reason is longer sentences. And despite sharp drops in convictions for narcotics-related crimes, drug abusers and drug dealers continue to account for about a third of all admissions to state prisons.
The social and fiscal price of clogged prisons has contributed to something approaching a rare bipartisan consensus that more must be done to channel certain nonviolent offenders — namely, nonviolent drug users — away from incarceration and into treatment programs. That is the marquee recommendation of a bipartisan state panel, the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, established last year to consider sentencing reforms.
By diverting more drug users — but not drug dealers — to treatment programs and cutting maximum sentences for first-time drug offenders, the panel reckoned that the state could reduce its prison population over a decade by about 4,000 inmates, roughly 20 percent of the total. That would save nearly $250 million on corrections spending, which could be used to pay for treatment and other programs to help offenders.
The council’s recommendations do not go far enough to satisfy many liberals, who argue that prison time simply hardens offenders and ensures recidivism. They would prefer reforms that cut incarceration rates and scrapped mandatory minimum sentences not only for drug users but also for dealers and other nonviolent offenders. And they note that even as crime rates have fallen sharply, the prison population has remained stubbornly high.
Nonetheless, higher incarceration rates likely have contributed to those falling crime rates. While some states (notably New York) experienced precipitous reductions in crime even as they sharply curtailed incarceration, data from other states suggest a correlation between tough sentences and safer streets.
The Maryland panel itself concluded that incarceration has been an important factor in reducing crime, although perhaps not as important as better policing, changes in demographics and expanded use of private security services.
The panel has charted a middle path with its targeted recommendations: diverting nonviolent drug users to treatment programs, easing up on former inmates who commit minor violations of their parole conditions, lowering the age (to 60 from 65) for so-called geriatric parole eligibility and eliminating the disconnect in sentencing for users of powdered and crack cocaine — a disparity that often treats white offenders more leniently than black ones.
Those are sensible proposals. Lawmakers in Annapolis should move to give them the force of law in this year’s General Assembly session.