The Justice Reinvestment Act: An Opportunity for Change and Progress in Maryland

by Sophie Breene

PastedGraphic-2

Image available here.

On May 19, 2016, Governor Larry Hogan signed the Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA) into law, making Maryland the 26th state to pass some form of justice reinvestment legislation in the past ten years.[1] Beginning in October 2017, incarcerated individuals can petition the courts to start putting the law’s provisions into action.[2] The law came to pass after several rounds of bipartisan negotiations, and thus critics on both sides of the political spectrum argue that JRA does too much or not enough for criminal reform.[3] Despite its limitations, the new law will help to curb the cycle of incarceration that disproportionately hurts people living in poverty.

Roughly defined, “justice reinvestment” is a process by which states use financial, sociological, and criminal justice data to create policies that reduce recidivism and bring down prison populations while maintaining public safety.[4] In Maryland, the reforming law has several different provisions, all of which fall within the goal of changing the state’s “war on drugs” strategy to a more holistic and treatment-centered approach designed to help—rather than punish—those struggling with substance abuse.[5] JRA recognizes and incorporates criminal justice trends throughout the nation and in Maryland: Notably, while crime rates even in large cities like Baltimore are significantly down, sentences are becoming longer.[6] Combined with the knowledge that fifty-eight percent of prison admissions in Maryland were sentenced for nonviolent crimes, findings indicate that there is a pressing need to reevaluate how the state punishes people for engaging in unlawful behavior.[7]

JRA’s most progressive change eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug charges.[8] JRA contains several other provisions aimed at diverting offenders from State prisons.[9] For example, it directs low-level drug offenders to treatment programs instead of jail, reduces the maximum sentence for misdemeanor theft from one year to six months, and raises the value of stolen items in order to make theft a felony.[10]

In addition to changing the status quo behind policing and incarceration, legislators anticipate the policy will result in substantial savings for the state.[11] JRA aims to reduce Maryland’s prison population by 1,200 over the next ten years.[12] Maryland’s average daily prison population is 20,602 individuals, at a cost of $38,360 per person per year.[13] Although JRA is only expected to reduce the prison population by five percent, these minor changes will result in state budget savings up to $80 million.[14]

The state government has yet to decide what it will do with the anticipated budget surplus JRA will generate. One option that would align with the purpose of JRA would be to utilize the funds for substance use treatment, educational programs, and other services that can benefit Marylanders residing in state prisons during and after their incarceration. As an intern at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender last summer, I kept hearing from incarcerated clients that they wanted to sign up for programming such as GED and college classes, counseling, and vocational training, but were deterred by long wait lists. Even more commonly, inmates indicated that they weren’t allowed to sign up for drug treatment until they were approaching their release date—even if that date was years in the future. Prison programming not only satisfies the requirements of inmates’ incarceration, but it helps them show progress and growth when they appear in front of judges, parole boards, and when seeking post-incarceration employment.[15] This is not an isolated phenomenon; individuals serving time across the state are often victims of budget cuts that affect state-funded programming.[16] While studies consistently demonstrate that access to education while in prison can assist in reducing recidivism, these programs are constantly on the budgetary chopping block.[17]

This current lack of vocational, therapeutic, and educational opportunities for individuals in prison helps perpetuate the cycle of incarceration, since it prevents inmates from developing new skills and conquering drug or alcohol dependency.[18] Most significantly, the present state of inmate programming defeats one of the major goals of JRA, which is emphasizing treatment and increasing opportunities for individuals in the criminal justice system, rather than doling out punishment for punishment’s sake. If we are truly going to reinvest in justice, we need to equip incarcerated individuals with the tools they need to lead productive and successful lives.

[1] Justice Reinvestment Act, S.B. 1005, 2016 Leg., Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Md. 2016).

[2] Alison Knezevich, New Maryland Law Lets Some Prisoners Seek Reduced Sentences for Drug Crimes, Balt. Sun (Sept. 30, 2017), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-mandatory-minimum-repeal-20170926-story.html; Brett Smoot, Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act: What You Need to Know, Univ. Balt. L. Rev. (Nov. 4, 2016), https://ubaltlawreview.com/2016/11/04/marylands-justice-reinvestment-act-what-you-need-to-know/.

[3] David Collins, Controversy Clouds Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act, WBAL-TV 11 (Mar. 23, 2016), http://www.wbaltv.com/article/controversy-clouds-maryland-s-justice-reinvestment-act/7099685; Pamela Wood, Maryland Lawmakers Agree on How to Reform Criminal Justice System, Balt. Sun (Apr. 9, 2016), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bal-as-time-runs-short-lawmakers-continue-work-on-justice-reinvestment-20160409-story.html.

[4] Alison Lawrence, Justice Reinvestment State Resources, Nat’l Conf. St. Legs. (Jan. 1, 2017), http://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/justicereinvestment.aspx.

[5]Justice Reinvestment Act, supra note 1.

[6] Justice Reinvestment Initiative, Just. Reinvestment Advisory Bd. (June 21, 2017), https://goccp.maryland.gov/wp-content/uploads/justice-reinvestment-advisory-20170621-powerpoint.pptx (last visited Nov. 8, 2017).

[7] Id.

[8] Ovetta Wiggins, How Maryland Came to Repeal Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenders, Wash. Post (June 1, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/how-maryland-came-to-repeal-mandatory-minimums-for-drug-offenders/2016/06/01/4961c7c4212411e68690f14ca9de2972_story.html?utm_term=.c42cc87d0bfa.

[9] Criminal Justice Diversion Programs: Policy Recommendations for Maryland, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Sch. Pub. Health, https://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/institute-for-health-and-social-policy/awards-and-fellowships/lipitz-public-health-policy-faculty-awards/awardees/Criminal-Justice-Diversion.pdf (last visited Nov. 8, 2017).

[10] Justice Reinvestment Act, supra note 1.

[11] Justice Reinvestment Initiative, supra note 6.

[12] Press Release: Pew Applauds Maryland Leaders for Sentencing and Corrections Reforms, Pew Charitable Tr. (May 19, 2016), http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/about/news-room/press-releases/2016/05/19/pew-applauds-maryland-leaders-for-sentencing-and-corrections-reforms.

[13] Maryland at a Glance: Criminal Justice, Md. Manual Online, http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/mdmanual/01glance/html/criminal.html (last visited Nov. 8, 2017).

[14] Michael Dresser, Hogan Signs Bill to Overhaul Maryland Criminal Justice System, Balt. Sun (May 19, 2016), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-justice-reinvestment-20160518-story.html.

[15] See Sarah Lawrence, et al., Urb. Inst. Just. Pol’y Ctr., The Practice and Promise of Prison Programming (2002), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/60431/410493-The-Practice-and-Promise-of-Prison-Programming.PDF; see also Editorial, Let Prisoners Learn While They Serve, N.Y. Times, Aug. 16, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/16/opinion/prison-education-programs-.html

[16] Michael Dresser, Maryland Lawmakers Aim to Cut Wait Times for Inmate Drug Treatment, Balt. Sun (Mar. 1, 2016), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-drug-treatment-20160301-story.html.

[17] Eric Westervelt, Measuring the Power of a Prison Education, Nat’l Pub. Radio (July 31, 2015), http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/07/31/427741914/measuring-the-power-of-a-prison-education.

[18] See The Practice and Promise of Prison Programming, supra note 15.