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   'Treatment, Not Prison' Says MD Budget Study

RECONSIDERING POLICY:

‘Treatment, Not Prison’ Says MD Budget Study

Special to The Chronicle

As states around the country reform their corrections systems to cope with the budget crisis, a new report urges Maryland policymakers to consider a range of reforms to reduce prison spending.

“Many [states] are rethinking and reversing costly mandatory minimum sentencing laws,” says Judith Greene, co-author of “Cutting Correctly in Maryland,” prepared for the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute and funded by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. “States are diverting non-violent drug and property offenders from prison to less expensive, more effective correctional options. Maryland’s prisons hold thousands of offenders with substance abuse problems who need treatment—not warehousing—to safely return them to their families and communities.”

The report highlights some of the factors that have tripled the state’s prison population over the last two decades—from 7,731 in 1980 to 23,752 at the end of 2001. It found that 24 percent of the inmates in Maryland’s prisons are drug offenders and that nonviolent offenders are languishing behind bars as the number of prisoners paroled each year has fallen by 29 percent.

The report highlights Maryland’s increasing use of incarceration for elderly and women prisoners—categories of offenders who are both the most expensive group to imprison and the least likely to pose a threat to public safety. Mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing enhancements, as well as the failure to develop an effective web of community-based treatment programs, have contributed to the state’s increasing and costly reliance on incarceration.

As Maryland struggles with finances, 30 of 54 state agencies expect to see their budgets lowered next year. Meanwhile, corrections is slated to receive a $17 million increase next year, along with $92 million in proposed prison construction funds, representing the largest prison construction increase in a decade.

“Cutting Correctly in Maryland” summarizes the historic shift away from the “tough-on-crime” mood of the 1990s, highlighting recent opinion surveys that show public support for returning sentencing discretion to judges and the development of well-structured correctional options as alternatives to prison. Public opinion research undertaken in 1998 at the University of Maryland’s survey research center found that nearly 60 percent endorsed giving judges discretion in sentencing nonviolent offenders.

“With public opinion favoring common-sense legislation that treats and rehabilitates nonviolent offenders, states have an historic opportunity to save money and reduce their overburdened corrections systems,” says Justice Policy Institute (JPI) Executive Director and report co-author Timothy Roche. “The money saved from cutting corrections spending correctly should be invested in schools, hospitals and employment opportunities.”

In his State of the State Address, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. said, “We must work together to get nonviolent drug offenders out of jail and into treatment programs, where they belong.” To further the Governor’s proposal, JPI recommends that policymakers consider several reforms that will impact state spending on corrections and make Maryland’s justice system more effective. Significant recommendations include:

  • Pass sentencing reform legislation which abolishes mandatory sentences and provides treatment, rather than prison, to people sentenced for drug and property offenses where the offender is a drug abuser. (Those with violent convictions, handgun convictions and drug kingpins should be excluded from these changes.)

  • Use some of the savings from sentencing changes to develop a system where drug abusers and those convicted of certain theft and burglary offenses be paroled, and provided with a “voucher,” redeemable for substance abuse services from any licensed Maryland substance abuse treatment provider.

  • The state should reform its parole system. The report finds that Maryland’s system of parole is grossly inefficient, and that thousands of inmates linger well past their parole eligibility dates without even a hearing. The report recommends that all inmates have hearings completed at least three months prior to their parole eligibility dates. Further, parole eligibility should be advanced for specific types of low-risk offenders (for example, elderly inmates and women).

  • The state should postpone any new prison construction until the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy and the legislature and governor have been able to study the impact of these and other correctional reforms.

“Cutting Correctly in Maryland” is available online at justicepolicy.org. The Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization, is a project of the non-profit Tides Center. The article above is excerpted, with permission, from the report’s executive summary.


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This story was published on March 5, 2003.
  
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