New Report Examines Factors Driving Overcrowding
of the Baltimore Jail
Research highlights the factors and policies that lead to over-incarceration, makes recommendations on how the justice system can be improved.
WASHINGTON DC – The number of people in Baltimore’s overcrowded jail can be reduced – saving millions of state dollars – by changing policing practices, reforming court processes and improving jail and post-jail services, according to a research report released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI).
Baltimore Behind Bars: How to Reduce the Jail Population, Save Money and Improve Public Safety details Baltimore’s complex system of city policing practices and court and bail processes that contribute to a high percentage of city residents being detained in the jail, often unnecessarily. The report also finds that the courts are clogged with too many cases, which further contributes to people being held pre-trial for extended periods of time.
“We chose to focus on the Baltimore jail because jails are ripe for reforms that until recently have focused on prisons,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “The Baltimore jail holds the distinction of being among the largest and oldest jails in the country, and it incarcerates the highest percentage of the City’s population when compared to other large jails. In many ways jails are like the canary in the coal mine, with bloated populations being symptomatic of larger systemic problems.”
Baltimore Behind Bars details how more than half of people arrested in Baltimore are locked up in the jail to await trial, with more than half of those in jail not being offered bail. In all, nine out of 10 people in the jail are awaiting trial and have not been found guilty of the current offense – far higher than the national average of two-thirds. Most people are being charged with nonviolent offenses such as drug and property offenses and violations of probation. Additionally, African Americans are overrepresented at the jail, comprising about 66 percent of the general population of Baltimore, but 94 percent of the people in the jail.
The State of Maryland, which owns and operates the jail complex, is currently planning two new jail facilities in Baltimore — one for youth being tried as adults and another for women– at an estimated cost of $280 million. The report notes that while these facilities will be an improvement over aging facilities, they may needlessly increase the number of people incarcerated in the jail. Increasing the number of jail beds, and improving facilities, may create a disincentive to finding effective alternatives to pretrial detention, leading to more people in jail instead of less.
“The idea that arresting and incarcerating more people means less crime is a myth,” noted Nastassia Walsh, research associate at JPI and author of the report. “The last thing Baltimore needs is more jail beds. It is vital to the well-being of the city that the current jail population be reduced and that effective alternatives be considered.”
The report recommends that by implementing effective solutions to reduce the number of people in the current jail, money could be re-directed toward services like education, employment support and treatment. These services should be available for people before they come into contact with the justice system as well as for those re-entering their communities after being released from the jail.
“The need for change is clear,” added Velázquez. “Communities can’t solve social problems by locking up more of their residents. It’s time for all stakeholders to collaborate on solutions.”
“The decision to build more jails in this city without first taking steps to reduce the current jail population is wrong-headed,” added Monique Dixon, Director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program of the Open Society Institute–Baltimore, a private foundation which supported the research that led to the report. “Creating policies to release people appropriately while they are awaiting their trials would not only save money, but also allow Baltimore residents to continue working and supporting their families while their legal matters are resolved. Other states have taken this approach, and Baltimore should too.”
The Justice Policy Institute recommends the following changes, among many recommendations, to improve the pre-trial detention process and reduce the Baltimore jail population:
- Reform arrest, enforcement, diversion and probation practices: Baltimore police can reduce arrests by giving people citations for minor offenses, and the courts can divert people with mental health and drug treatment needs to public and community-based providers. Changes to the probation system that send fewer people to jail on technical violations would further reduce the number of people in the jail.
- Expand pretrial release and reform bail practices: The booking process can be streamlined, and a system should be in place for the courts to screen low-risk individuals for pre-trial release. The courts should explore methods of releasing people other than money bail and expand use of the Pretrial Release Supervision Program.
- Update court processes: Baltimore’s courts should set up a reminder system, currently used successfully in many cities across the country, which remind people of court dates. They should also reduce the time between arrests and court dates and expand their operating hours. Violation of probation cases can be moved faster, with better data collected between the courts and the police, to reduce the number of people being held for this violation.
- Provide more, and better, re-entry and “no-entry” services: Instead of spending millions of dollars to build more jails, Maryland and Baltimore policy makers should instead focus on saving money by doing what they can to reduce the jail population. The money saved, as well as funding earmarked to build new jails, should be used to fund more front-end services, such as education, employment, treatment and housing, which can help reduce crime and incarceration. Improved re-entry services for those being released can also have a positive impact, including returning of property, timely releases and medications and services.
To read the Executive Summary and the full report of Baltimore Behind Bars CLICK HERE. For additional information, please contact Adam Ratliff at (202) 558-7974 x306 or [email protected]. For a more JPI reports on the Baltimore and Maryland criminal justice systems, please visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org.
The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to reducing society’s use of incarceration and promoting just and effective social policies.