National and State Experts to Highlight Causes, Remedies for Racial Disparities in Maryland’s Criminal Justice System

What: Briefing of the Maryland State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

When: Tuesday, June 5, 2012, 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. ET

Where: Legislative Services Building, Joint Hearing Room, 90 State Circle, Annapolis, MD

Washington, DC – In the past two decades, Maryland’s general fund spending on corrections has increased by more than 300 percent.  African Americans have been the most impacted by this radical expansion of the prison system.  In Maryland, African American men are incarcerated at 6.37 times the rate that white men are.[iii]

“Mass incarceration is a civil rights issue because of the overwhelmingly disparate impact the system has on people of color,” stated Susan Goering, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland.  She added,  “In Maryland, African Americans comprise over 70 percent of the state’s prisoners, despite constituting 29 percent of its residents.   What makes these numbers particularly alarming is that even after people have served brutally long sentences, they face barriers in employment, housing, education, health care, and voting. According to study after study, long sentences for minor offenses do not make our communities any safer, and the loss of human capital and tax dollars is detrimental to all of us.”

These disparities begin outside the prison walls. Arrest data shows that African-Americans in Maryland are arrested at 3.4 times the rate of whites. One-third (32.7 percent) of prisoners were in for drug offenses in 2010.[iv]  Black Marylanders are over three times more likely to be arrested for drug abuse offenses than whites, even though national estimates of illicit drug use is only about 1.6 percent greater: less than one percent (0.77) of white Marylanders are arrested for drug offenses compared to 2.7 percent of African-American Marylanders, while according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.1 percent of whites and 10.7 percent of African Americans used illicit drugs in the past month.[i]

“The Commission should be applauded for examining the continuing racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) and one of the hearing panelists. “At just about every point in the system – including where and how we police, whether people are kept in jail while awaiting trial, and what sentences people receive – African Americans receive harsher treatment. There are complex interactions driving these differences that include economic and other factors, so there are no easy solutions. But the costs and impacts of doing nothing are too great for us to ignore these issues any longer.”

The Committee’s briefing will gather information regarding the reasons for and the impact of racial disparities in the criminal justice system in Maryland and to consider recommendations regarding these disparities. Speakers include State Senator Lisa Gladden, as well as representatives from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, academic institutions and organizations with expertise in criminal justice and civil rights, including the ACLU, the Sentencing Project, Prison Fellowship, and the NAACP.

“We know that many of our policies institutionalize a racial bias,” said Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project.  “The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine is a clear example of this.  We must open our eyes to the inherent unfairness of our current criminal justice system if we are to hope to change it.”

Added Cindy Boersma of the Maryland Office of Public Defenders, “The system is weighted against those without resources. For example, we know that being held in jail while awaiting trial increases your chance of being convicted and going to prison, yet many people who are considered low-risk are in Maryland jails because they can’t make even small bails. And with drug offenses driving our prison population, inability to obtain drug treatment can put someone at greater risk of being arrested and imprisoned.” With over two and a half times as many African Americans in Maryland live in poverty than whites[ii], Cindy added, “African Americans in Maryland are more likely to become incarcerated due lack of economic resources. And the collateral consequences of a conviction can make it even harder to break the cycle.”

The briefing is open to the public. After hearing from the speakers, the Committee will take brief statements from members of the public who wish to speak to this topic.



[iii] Maryland Division of Correction, Annual Report, FY 2010.

[iv] Crime in Maryland, 2010 Uniform Crime Report