AN EMERGING bipartisan consensus that too many people are behind bars often frays when it comes to how, and how drastically, to pare prison rolls. In Maryland, lawmakers are debating a pair of competing reform bills, and the skirmish lines are not neatly partisan.
Lawmakers are right to reexamine policies on sentencing, parole and probation, especially for nonviolent and drug offenders, with the goals of trimming the prison population, eliminating racial disparities in the judicial system and shifting funds to fight recidivism, treat addicts and ease reentry for ex-convicts. America’s incarceration rate, a product of get-tough policies stemming from the crime wave of the 1960s and ’70s, far exceeds that of other countries.
But lawmakers also are right to balance those priorities with the objective of public safety. Hard-nosed sentencing measures likely contributed to — though don’t wholly explain — plummeting crime rates over the past two decades. In Maryland, those rates for a range of violent and property offenses hit all-time lows in 2014, the last year for which complete statistics are available. Maryland’s toll of roughly 365 murders in 2014 was almost unchanged from the mid-1980s, despite a 25 percent population jump. That’s no small feat.
In Annapolis, the state Senate has taken a restrained legislative approach to reducing the prison population, one that critics consider halfhearted . It would halt a 6 percent projected increase (owing mainly to longer sentences) over the next decade in the prison rolls, now nearly 21,000, achieving a small cost savings. The House of Delegates’ more ambitious measure would reduce the prison population by some 3,500 inmates in the same 10-year span, saving the state an estimated $247 million.
The savings in the House bill have grabbed headlines but amount to a relatively modest bit of austerity against state corrections spending that exceeds $1.3 billion annually. The real goal should be not fiscal, but fair and rational steps to improve the criminal justice system.
The Senate’s strategy strikes a better balance. It would cut inmate counts by trimming sentences for some nonviolent drug and theft offenders and chip away at needlessly long mandatory minimum terms for others currently behind bars. It would also streamline parole procedures for nonviolent offenders who are at low risk of committing new crimes and limit the amount of additional prison time some would serve for so-called technical violations of their probations — if a judge determined they posed no threat to safety.
The House bill goes too far in granting more lenient parole policies for nonviolent offenders and tighter caps on additional prison time that judges could impose for probation infractions. Judges and parole hearing officers would be empowered to exercise little discretion.
Advocates of the House bill note that other states have embraced similar reforms, with no spike in crime rates. But Maryland’s incarceration rate has been falling for years and is already below the national average. Most inmates who enter its prisons are nonviolent offenders, but the state’s violent crime rate remains significantly higher than most other states’. Reform is critical; so is prudence.