Melissa Goemann: Moving into the forefront of prison reform
Across the country, states are considering drastic measures to balance their budgets. The massive protests in Wisconsin and contentious debate many states are having over budget cuts reflect the passion surrounding this hot topic. Here in Maryland, leaders have considered significant cuts to public education, which would be a shortsighted step down a treacherous path that would undermine our future prosperity.
But if we take stock of our priorities and choose well, there may be more money for the things Marylanders and Americans care most about. In California, for instance, the governor can either eliminate the entire $30 million the state spends on public libraries or put the brakes on spending more than $50 million to imprison two dozen bedridden inmates who pose no threat to public safety.
Conservative and liberals around the country increasingly agree that one place we can spend less is the bloated criminal justice system. It makes no sense to cut education, health care and employee benefits, while at the same time refusing to cut spending on prisons a massive expenditure much of which does not make any of us any safer.
Maryland, like most states, finds itself at a crossroads. The state's incarceration rate has tripled since 1980, disproportionately affecting communities of color. In 2009, Maryland spent a staggering $1.4 billion on corrections. We simply cannot afford to continue spending that much money unnecessarily locking people up when there are far more effective and cost-effective alternatives available.
That is why this legislative session a bipartisan group of Maryland legislators has sponsored a number of bills that would take much-needed steps toward reforming the state's criminal justice system and easing the budget strain.
Two bills would steer us away from locking up individuals for nonviolent offenses, a practice that accounts for a large portion of the money we funnel into our criminal justice system. House Bill 353 would reform harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and offer drug treatment as an alternative. House Bill 606 would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense subject to a fine instead of prison time.
Several other bills would reform the parole and probation systems. Senate Bill 801/House Bill 919 would provide alternatives to automatic incarceration for people who violate parole so that those who commit violations are punished appropriately and those who deserve to remain on parole do so. Senate Bill 583/House Bill 964 aims to reduce recidivism of those on probation and parole by using risk assessments and other evidence-based practices to identify and direct greater supervision and support to those who most need it.
HB 1248 would reward individuals who follow all conditions of their parole with shorter parole sentences. Another proposal, SB 172, would save money by depoliticizing the decision of whether to grant parole to inmates who can safely be returned to their communities, many of whom are elderly.
Legislative endeavors like these mirror efforts under way in many states. Texas, for example, has already implemented comprehensive legislative reforms, reduced its prison population and saved millions of dollars while maintaining its public safety.
Nationally, corrections is now the fourth-largest category of state spending, behind only education, Medicaid and transportation. Despite this increase in spending, national recidivism rates have remained largely unchanged and crime rates haven't dropped. Why? Because most of the people we throw into prison have committed minor infractions or low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.
Across the board, research shows that alternatives to prison (like treatment or probation) for these lower-risk, nonviolent offenders not only cost significantly less than jail time, but also ensure lower rates of recidivism.
Maryland has the opportunity to become a national leader by sending people to prison only when truly necessary and saving our precious government dollars for things that are far more important and benefit all Marylanders. The time for change is now.
Melissa Goemann is legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.