Maryland Justice Reinvestment Act
In 2015, the leaders of Maryland’s executive, legislative and judicial branches recognized the state needed help to address challenges in its sentencing and corrections policies and practices. Despite historically low rates of crime, the state was still locking up more than 20,000 people – disproportionately people of color – which is about the same number of people in prison as the early 1990s when Maryland was dealing with all-time high crime rates. This commitment to a “tough on crime” agenda was costing the state $1.3 billion a year with little demonstrated impact on public safety. As a result, Maryland policymakers requested the assistance of the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Charitable Trusts to help identify the root causes of Maryland’s costly and ineffective prison system, and to provide evidence-based policy solutions proven to work in other states.
Maryland established the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council (JRCC) in 2015, joining 33 other states that have participated in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). JRI provides technical assistance to states interested in a data-driven process to identify areas of improvement to policy and practice that can reduce the number of people in prison, control costs, and protect public safety. This is accomplished by policy reforms that cut costs by reducing the number of people in prison, or under community supervision, and reinvesting the savings into alternatives proven to reduce recidivism and keep people released from prison in the community.
Many of the recommendations from the JRCC were incorporated into Senate Bill 1005 (2016), the Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA), which took effect October 1, 2017. The SB 1005 package had estimated savings of $80 million over 10 years by reducing the prison population by about 1,200 people (6 percent) relative to the status quo. It is important to note that the bill and its forecasted impact were scaled back significantly from the original consensus recommendations of the JRCC, which would have driven down the prison population by an estimated 14 percent over the next 10 years, saving the state approximately $240 million.
What Can Maryland Do Better?
The passage of one year since the effective date of the Justice Reinvestment Act provides an opportunity to reflect on progress made and identify areas where Maryland can improve. In that spirit, there are three important steps that Maryland should take to ensure that the JRA is able to fulfill the goals enshrined in the legislation:
- Implement key reforms
- Reinvest savings from declining prison population
- Improve data reporting
Implement Key Reforms
The passage of the JRA ushered in a number of important reforms to sentencing, community supervision, and treatment capacity in Maryland. While it is far too early to determine how much of an impact many of these policy changes will have on the prison population, there are some that can be identified as being underutilized. For example, SB 1005 expanded eligibility for geriatric parole and medical parole. However, there are no data available that would indicate how much, if at all, these reforms are actually being utilized. There are currently more than 3,000 people over the age of 50 held in Maryland prisons. Over 800 are over 60 years of age and that number will grow due to the use of life sentences, including the fact that people with parole-eligible life sentences are very rarely released in Maryland. This is the result of a 1995 change in practice by then-Governor Parris Glendening, continued by every governor since, to deny recommendations for release by the Parole Commission. This has resulted in an aging prison population that is disproportionately Black, costs more to incarcerate than the state average due to health costs associated with prison, and is at greatly reduced risk of reoffending due to aging. Maryland has the potential to save millions by simply following the recommendations of the JRCC and SB 1005 and making earnest use of geriatric parole and medical parole.
There are far fewer people incarcerated today than in prior years; Maryland should use this opportunity to reinvest these savings in programs and people that hold the potential to further reduce the scale of the criminal justice system while also maximizing public safety. This virtuous cycle is the promise of the justice reinvestment model — move dollars out of dated, ineffective prisons and into communities where the return on investment is significantly higher. As of 2017, data from the Urban Institute reveal that the 22 states that participated in the justice reinvestment process have reported a total of $557 million in investments. This includes $193 million in upfront investments at the time of bill passage and another $364 million in subsequent years. Most states are investing these dollars in community-based treatment and services, strengthening community supervision, treatment in prisons, problem-solving courts, and services to victims. The strategy is that these investments will drive further declines in crime and recidivism, thereby leading to a further reduction in the number of people in prison or under supervision.
Most of the dollars saved through justice reinvestment are directed back into the criminal justice system in the form of expanded community supervision resources, drug treatment, mental health treatment, and law enforcement. On the other hand, Colorado offers a powerful example of directing resources back to the communities most acutely affected by mass incarceration. Recent research points to community organizations that push diverse strategies targeting economic development, treatment, healthy neighborhoods, and expanded green space as important contributors to reductions in violent crime. Colorado’s Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative, passed in 2017, is consistent with those findings. The Initiative authorizes savings from reforms to parole revocation policies to be invested in community-based organizations that have developed innovative strategies to strengthen neighborhoods and prevent crime. This approach ensures that dollars are directed where they are most needed and empowers leaders in those communities to develop customized, evidence-based solutions to their problems.
Maryland would be wise to invest a portion of the savings from reducing its prison population into these communities to support drug treatment, job training, economic development, housing, and education. Investing in a portfolio of these types of programs would result in a much better return on investment than spending more money on prisons. In addition, there is substantial value to the community as reduced crime saves costs to victims, law enforcement, and the court. For the cost of sending one person to prison for a year – currently $46,000 – investing in communities at the local level could pay for employment training for nine people, two-bedroom apartments for 36 families for one month, or a GED course for 46 people. One avenue to achieve this goal is to work through the Local Government Justice Reinvestment Commission, which was established in SB 1005 to represent each county in advising the JROB on various matters. The Commission is charged with making recommendations regarding grants to local governments and creating measures to assess the effectiveness of the grants.
Maryland is not collecting and reporting the data necessary to produce meaningful performance measures that track the implementation of SB 1005. Currently, the JROB produces a quarterly brief that outlines system-level trends in the prison population, community supervision, county detention, pretrial detention, and the use of graduated sanctions. None of these data provide the detail necessary to determine what effect, if any, the JRA is having on those populations.
The Justice Reinvestment Act, as written, is a landmark piece of criminal justice legislation that seeks to put Maryland on the pathway to a more fair and effective criminal justice system that protects the public, provides support for people involved in the justice system, and reinvests resources into programs and policies that hold the promise of better outcomes. However, in the year since the law went into effect, little is known about its impact. Anecdotal evidence suggests that implementation has been uneven and the lack of any systematic data collection or process evaluation prevents lawmakers and the public from knowing whether the JRA is meeting its ambitious goals. Policymakers and the JROB should use the occasion of this one-year anniversary to demand that the state ensure all elements of the JRA are implemented, savings are tabulated and targeted for reinvestment, and data are collected and shared among criminal justice agencies in order to allow for effective monitoring of its effectiveness.