Shrinking Prisons, Growing Opportunities
Governor Larry Hogan and officials of the union for correctional officers (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) have both said it: correctional officer vacancies in Maryland prisons are rising. At the same time, the Hogan administration plans to close and consolidate prison facilities in Baltimore and Cumberland and to make substantial staffing changes in Jessup and Hagerstown. What’s going on?
Marylanders should put this 2017 news in the context of our landmark 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA)– called “one of the most intensively researched pieces of criminal justice legislation in the state’s history” by the Annapolis Capital and “the largest, most comprehensive criminal-justice reform in Maryland in a generation” by the Governor.
JRA promotes cuts to Maryland prison populations, beginning 10/1/17, by at least 1,000 lower-risk inmates. Then, from projected savings of over $80 million over 10 years, it makes improvements to offenders’ education, job-training, drug and mental health treatment – all measures proven more effective in reducing recidivism (repeated crimes) than longer prison terms.
With smaller prison populations anticipated, the Governor and the unions both must ponder future priorities. Would it be better to hire more in-prison educators and vocational trainers than to hire more guards? Would it save money and staffing costs to transfer soon-to-be-released prisoners to lower security and local reentry programs? Can guards be retrained to assist in re-entry or take on other roles that reduce recidivism? If no prison units are closed, the JRA may result in savings of about $9,000 per inmate per year, according to one analysis. If prison units can be closed, however, savings may exceed $38,000 per inmate per year.
As they do, they have the opportunity to address notable gaps, leading to savings and a more effective correctional system:
- At the front end, Maryland’s pretrial operations still relies on money bail – a defacto discriminatory system that keeps mostly poor, African-American offenders in costly local jails, despite the fact that many states (New Jersey, Kentucky) and counties (St. Mary’s, Anne Arundel) have demonstrated savings and safety with pretrial release and supervision.
- For some nonviolent misdemeanors, police could be given the discretion to issue more citations— comparable to traffic tickets—instead of making arrests.
- For “technical” probation violations, Maryland judges who issue “no-bail” arrest warrants and make probationers spend months in jail — even though they have committed no new offense – should end this practice.
- For homeless persons and mentally-ill offenders, many counties need to improve programs that provide treatment instead of jail. A 2016 study found that over 40% of Maryland jail inmates suffer from mental disorders.
- Many elderly inmates given life sentences with the possibility of parole have been denied parole by every Maryland governor since Paris Glendening, even though the rate of new offenses for this group is lower than 1%. Due to medical costs, these inmates cost taxpayers two to three times more than any other inmates. It is time to award parole, as the judge intended, when it is safe and makes sense.
- Finally, more attention should be paid to building effective reentry programs in every Maryland county to assist “returning citizens” to reunite with their families, to find jobs, and to avoid any more prison time.
As the JRA is implemented, Maryland has an unprecedented opportunity to improve the criminal justice system to benefit Maryland. As we rethink what we are doing together, we have the chance to take a thoughtful look at what’s working to achieve both public safety and savings.
NOTE: A retired Md. Circuit Court judge and former chair of a statewide sentencing committee, Phil Caroom writes here as a private citizen and member of the bipartisan Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (www.ma4jr.org).