This year, Maryland experienced the beginning of a historic shift from a failed tough-on-crime approach that has swelled our prisons — mostly with poor black and brown people — and emptied our coffers, toward a smarter, evidence-based and more humane approach to justice. That new approach promises to reduce the incarcerated population, reduce recidivism by giving people returning to their communities from jail or prison the support they need to avoid future entanglement with the criminal-justice system and reduce the unconscionable racial and socioeconomic biases that permeate and delegitimize our justice system.
Still, we have yet to address the more than one-third of the state’s incarcerated population in jail, not prison. What’s the difference? Generally, jails house folks who are awaiting trial or have been sentenced to serve fewer than 18 months. Everyone else is in state prison.
What has been accomplished so far? The General Assembly passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed. Among other reforms, the bill, which set out to reduce the prison population and cut state spending on incarceration, eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for some drug distribution offenses, lowers the sentences for some minor offenses, increases eligibility for geriatric parole, expands the opportunity to expunge criminal records and limits the amount of time someone can be re-incarcerated for a technical violation of parole or probation. The legislation is estimated to save the state $80.5 million and reduce the prison population by 1,194 beds over 10 years.
These reforms are, indeed, historic. But Maryland has a long way to go before we undo the severe damage wrought in poor and black and brown communities by biased policing strategies and the incarceration that follows. Thus far, the JRA has focused on our state prison population, not our local jails.
And, the jail population is substantial: In 2014, the Maryland prison population was estimated at 21,335; in 2013, there were 11,520 people held in Maryland’s jails on a typical day. And that number doesn’t account for churn — the larger number of people passing through jailhouse doors over the course of a year.
Unsurprisingly, the JRA research uncovered frightening racial disparities in prison admissions. In 2014, 70 percent of the prison population was black although only 30 percent of Maryland’s population is black. We have no reason to believe that similar disparities are not plaguing our jails.
Worse yet, most people in jail are being held pretrial, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime. In its final report, the Commission to Reform Maryland’s Pretrial System found that in 2014, 65.8 percent of Maryland’s jail population was held pretrial. This estimate was the highest recorded in the state since county jails began collecting data in 1998. Very often, these folks are held because they cannot afford bail. In essence, they are jailed because they are poor. Moreover, some who do pay bail often do so by going into debt or asking their families to go into debt.
Maryland’s jail population simply must be taken into account if we are to truly take on mass incarceration. The unjust mechanisms — such as racial and socioeconomic disparities and unduly harsh sentences for low-level offenses that inflate our prison population — are also at play in our jails.
Even a short jail stay can jeopardize an entire household’s stability, sometimes irreparably. If you were arrested and held pretrial because you could not afford bail, who would pay your rent that month? Who would pick up your kids from school? Who would care for them while you were detained? And would your boss hold your position open? Indefinitely? If you drive, what happens when you fall behind on your car payments? And what does this mean for anyone in your household who relies on you for financial support, transportation or child care? And you haven’t even been found guilty.
So, kudos to our General Assembly and the governor’s office for taking this important first step. But let’s be clear: Necessary criminal-justice reform is far from over. On to the jailhouse.
The writer is public policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.