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Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland

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In Category : Long Prison Terms, Community Reinvestment, Racial Equity, Emerging Adult Justice

Over incarceration of young black men in Maryland



Maryland leads the nation in incarcerating young Black men, sentenced to the longest prison terms, at a rate 25% higher than the next nearest state — Mississippi.

State has incarcerated the highest percentage of people who are Black in the country, more than twice the national average.

Punitive sentencing policies and restrictive parole release practices in Maryland have resulted in a deeply racially disproportionate criminal justice system that is acutely impacting those serving the longest prison terms. This is true despite a declining prison population and state leadership in Maryland having undertaken criminal justice reform in recent years. As recently as July 2018, more than 70 percent of Maryland’s prison population was black, compared to 31 percent of the state population. The latest data from the Department of Justice show that the proportion of the Maryland prison population that is black is more than double the national average of 32 percent. These disparities are rooted in decades of unbalanced policies that disproportionately over-police under-resourced communities of color, and a criminal justice system focused on punitive sentencing and parole practices.

Disparity Most Pronounced Among Emerging Adults, Especially Those with Long Sentences

Racial disparities persist despite the fact that the Maryland prison population has declined by 13 percent since 2014, resulting in nearly 2,700 fewer people incarcerated. These inequalities affect the entire population, but are most pronounced among those individuals who were incarcerated as emerging adults (18 to 24 years old) and are serving long prison terms. Nearly eight in 10 people who were sentenced as emerging adults and have served 10 or more years in a Maryland prison are black. This is the highest rate of any state in the country.

To be Effective, Solutions Must Focus on the Emerging Adult Population

To reverse these racially disparate outcomes—the result of decades of failed policies—Maryland needs to rethink its approach to 18- to 24-year-olds and join a growing number of jurisdictions exploring reforms related to emerging adults. This policy brief will provide perspective on why this population is unique and reforms are critical to improving outcomes in the justice system. Going forward, Maryland’s leadership can look toward examples of successful, evidence-based, and promising alternatives in other jurisdictions that can reduce the impact on emerging adults, racial disparities, and criminal justice involvement.

What do we mean by “emerging adults”?

The United States justice system is divided into two separate entities: the adult criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system. With the creation of the juvenile court in 1899, the vast majority of youth under the age of 18 are served in the juvenile system. But the choice of 18 as the cutoff age is arbitrary and subject to specific state statutes. For example, in four states, 17-year-olds are automatically prosecuted and sentenced as an adult. However, most states have chosen 18 as the age of adulthood. Some states, such as New York and North Carolina, have recently taken steps to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 years old.

The reason this age threshold matters is because the juvenile justice system’s underlying philosophy differs radically from that of the adult system. The juvenile justice system was explicitly developed as an alternative to the adult system, which is primarily focused on punishment. The juvenile system is based on an understanding that children have a less developed sense of right and wrong, reduced impulse control, and, as such, a different level of culpability for their actions. The juvenile system is not focused on absolving children of responsibility for their actions. However, it offers education, personal development, and rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Emerging adults in the criminal justice system

Nationally, emerging adults comprise a disproportionate share of the prison population. While they only encompass 10 percent of the U.S. general population, they account for nearly 10 percent of the prison population, 21 percent of state prison admissions, and at least 25 percent of arrests.

Emerging Adults, Race, and Long Prison Terms

These numbers are even more pronounced among people serving long prison terms. An analysis by the Urban Institute found that many individuals serving the longest prison terms were sentenced as emerging adults. Nationally, nearly four in 10 people serving the longest prison terms were incarcerated as an emerging adult. Moreover, many of them are black—while three in 10 people in state or federal prison are black, nearly six in 10 serving the longest prison terms and having entered as an emerging adult are black. This problem promises to get worse, as 13 percent of all black males in prison are emerging adults, many of whom will remain in prison serving extremely long sentences.

Maryland: Emerging adults, long sentences, and racial disparities

If the national story about emerging adults, race, and long prison terms is concerning, the situation in Maryland is alarming. In 2017, Maryland was at the forefront of the national criminal justice reform conversation when the state reported an unprecedented 10 percent decrease in its overall prison population. Policy makers declared victory. But despite that success, Maryland has been plagued with high rates of racial disparities among emerging adults serving long prison terms.

Maryland leads the country in racial disparity among those serving long prison terms. More than 70 percent of people in Maryland prisons and nearly eight in 10 people in prison who have served 10 years or more are black.

Among those people serving the longest prison terms (the longest 10 percent), half had been incarcerated as emerging adults and 82 percent are black. Of those serving 10 or more years, 41 percent are black men who were sentenced as emerging adults.

Emerging Adult Policy Recommendations

In recent years, the Supreme Court has issued landmark rulings that have compelled states to reevaluate how they address serious, violent offenses by young people under the age of 18. By outlawing the death penalty and life without parole sentences for those under age 18, the Supreme Court has forced states to reckon with the impact of long prison terms for young people. Examples abound of people being successfully and safely released from prison after having served long prison terms. These success stories have galvanized a larger conversation about how those lessons also apply to emerging adults.

As with youth under 18, when emerging adults are incarcerated in the adult system, they miss education and socialization opportunities that are critical to their successful transition to adulthood and their ability to function as independent, productive adults when they are released. The combination of the lack of age-appropriate services before, during, and after justice involvement is impacting their success.

The Maryland justice system is failing emerging adults, particularly those who are black. Rather than warehousing emerging adults, Maryland can learn lessons from other jurisdictions and develop age-appropriate programming to help emerging adults successfully transition into adulthood with a focus on education, vocational programming, and rehabilitative services. This would result in better public safety outcomes.

Policy recommendations include jail and prison-based programs, sentencing consideration, probation reform, community-based organizations and policy change.


Maryland has the most extreme racial disparities for those incarcerated for long terms in the United States. That should alarm Maryland leadership and its residents. These disparities are rooted in policing practices that target communities of color, a lack of investment and opportunity in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and an overly punitive sentencing, parole, and corrections system that focuses on punishment with insufficient attention given to programming and rehabilitative services that have been proven to improve public safety outcomes.

In particular, failure to address the needs of emerging adults in the criminal justice system has exacerbated racial inequities and driven a system that incarcerates people for decades beyond any public safety benefit. Maryland must not sit by as other states awaken to the need to think differently about emerging adults. Foundational reforms to how the juvenile and criminal justice systems treat 18- to 24-year-olds will help with rolling back mass incarceration, reducing racial disparities, empowering communities, saving taxpayer dollars, and delivering on the promise of safe and prosperous neighborhoods.

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