By Christopher Zoukis
Maryland incarceration rates have been steadily growing in recent years, as has the average sentence length. In response, The Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, made up of judges, lawyers, law enforcement, and lawmakers, was struck earlier this year to explore the reasons behind the booming prison population, and they are set to put forth a number of proposals on how to resolve some of the issues.
It’s a multi-pronged strategy that proponents say could result in cost-savings of $250 million in the next ten years while dramatically reducing the prison’s population.
Some elements of the proposed package seem like virtual no-brainers. Firstly, decreasing the age restriction on qualifying for geriatric parole from 65 to 60. The importance of such a change cannot be understated. As I’ve written elsewhere, the system is completely broken when it comes to dealing with aging prison populations. Not only is it completely cost-ineffective, but in many cases it creates an atmosphere in which cruelty and elder abuse runs rampant, resulting in serious social costs.
Other elements that enjoyed widespread agreement from the panel included: automatic parole for nonviolent offenders who reach their release eligibility date and have complied with prison rules and pre-release programs; no jail time for first time offenses of driving without a license or with a suspended license; and allowing nonviolent drug offenders to earn the same credits while in prison as other nonviolent offenders.
Where things have gotten contentious within the panel are over mandatory minimum sentences.
When the panel was first commissioned with the task of reducing recidivism in the state, they were guided by the understanding that, “’For too many individuals, incarceration becomes a way of life, in which they flounder in a cycle of recidivism. It is clear we need a new direction in how we supervise offenders,’ said Christopher B. Shank, chairman of the council and head of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.”
Reforms to mandatory minimums passed in Maryland earlier this year, accorded judges the ability to deviate from minimum sentences when circumstances deemed them excessive. Many had viewed those changes as representing the first step towards completely eliminating them. But the recent announcement seems almost to contradict the spirit of those changes. The number one reason for Maryland’s high level of incarceration? Drugs. But at the moment, the panels proposals only recommendations are to remove the disparity between crack and powdered cocaine sentencing, and to extend the ability to apply for resentencing to “the 1,700 inmates who are serving mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses.”
Beyond the frightening racial disparity inherent to drug sentences in Maryland, mandatory minimums are also frequently used as a bargaining chip by prosecutors to force defendants to accept plea bargains regardless of their guilt or innocence:
And the elimination of mandatory minimums enjoys popular support in the state, with 70% of those polled supporting the repeal of mandatory minimum sentence for non-violent drug offenses and 46% opposing mandatory minimums more generally.
As critics have already pointed out, even some of those participating in the panel, the incredible bias against African Americans inherent to mandatory minimums virtually ensures that the very “revolving door” they’re concerned about, will keep on spinning. Mandatory minimums cannot be “tweaked.” When the foundation of your system is broken, anything that arises from it will inevitably crumble.