The New Year is more than an opportunity to start fresh and set new goals for yourself. It’s also an opportunity to hold our elected officials accountable for the policies we want to see implemented.
2018 will provide an excellent opportunity for Maryland lawmakers to take a modern, common sense approach to criminal justice policy. Maryland has made progress recently in select areas of criminal justice reform, such as reducing needless mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes and prioritizing mental health rehabilitation over blanket incarceration, but there is still room for improvement.
A handful of Maryland counties are preparing for an influx of requests from state prisoners seeking reduced sentences under the newly passed Justice Reinvestment Act.
Studies show that mandatory minimum sentencing simply does not work; crime has significantly increased, not decreased, nationwide since the implementation of mandatory minimums in the 1970s. Mandatory minimum sentencing protocols also disproportionately affect communities of color. Only twenty-eight percent of Marylanders identify as African-American, but according to the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, eighty-one percent of individuals who received a mandatory minimum sentence for a drug-related offense between 2013 and 2014 were African-American.
Under Maryland’s new legislation, 490 state prisoners, eighty percent of whom are currently serving ten-year mandatory minimum drug sentences, are now eligible for shortened sentences that better reflect the milder nature of the crime they committed. Baltimore County, where thirty-five percent of expected motions for early release are concentrated, will be working closely with the State’s Attorney’s office to help process the motions efficiently and fairly.
Despite growing bipartisan support for ending mandatory minimum sentencing, President Donald Trump’s administration ruthlessly supports mandatory minimum sentencing. On May 10, 2017, the Office of Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo outlining its intentions to end President Barack Obama’s policy directing the Justice Department to seek sentences proportional to the severity of the crime committed whenever possible. Under Attorney General Sessions’ direction, the Justice Department will instead push prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious” criminal offense available.
2018 also looks promising for Marylanders to achieve collaborative criminal justice and mental health care reform. The criminal justice system and mental health care are inextricably linked; according to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, seventy-three percent of women and fifty-five percent of men incarcerated in state prisons are dealing with at least one mental health issue. Maryland simply does not have enough space to house criminal health offenders seeking mental health treatment; our state-run inpatient psychiatric facilities, which had 3,000 beds in the 1980s, had only 960 beds in 2016. Last year, Maryland Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene wrote that “the implications of this for the patients and staff in our facilities are grave.”
The Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council has recommended that Maryland offer more comprehensive mental health care to severely ill inmates, including cognitive behavioral therapy and substance abuse disorder treatment. To that effect, Maryland’s fiscal 2018 budget includes $1.3 billion for mental health care and substance abuse disorder treatment.
This is a critical moment for criminal justice reform in Maryland. Our lawmakers in Annapolis can either build on the recent strides they have made and take a more fair, holistic approach to rehabilitation through the criminal justice system, or they can take the easy way out and revert to backwards policies like the Trump administration has done.