Seek prison alternatives

May 21, 2002|By Vincent Schiraldi

U.S. JUSTICE Department prison data released in April show that while many state prison populations are leveling off or declining, Maryland's incarceration rate is continuing to grow.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that from June 2000 to June 2001, the cumulative prison population of the 50 states and the District of Columbia grew by only 0.4 percent, the lowest growth rate in nearly 30 years. During that same period, Maryland's prison population grew by 1.1 percent, or nearly three times the national average.

Some states noted for their incarceration rates, in a surprise, are taking the lead in reducing prison populations.

Last year, Louisiana, the state with the nation's highest incarceration rate, eliminated mandatory sentences for certain offenses, returning sentencing discretion to judges. Texas, the state with the largest prison population in the country, revised its parole policies, creating alternative sanctions for parole violators instead of automatically returning them to prison.

Earlier, North Carolina had the highest incarceration rate in the South. After the state created a more rational sentencing system, it reduced the number of nonviolent and drug offenders it imprisons and cut the prison population by 10,000 to 12,000 inmates. Maryland's incarceration rate is now 31 percent higher than North Carolina's.

Maryland's overall incarceration rate is just slightly higher than the national average, but the changes that have occurred here over the past decade or so can only be considered alarming.

The incarceration rate for African-Americans in Maryland is seven times the rate for whites, and the incarceration rate for Latinos is twice the white rate. Latinos are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in Maryland's prisons. For example, while Maryland's white incarceration rate has doubled since 1980, the Hispanic incarceration rate has increased fivefold.

In 1986, African-Americans were six times as likely to be sent to prison in Maryland for drug offenses as whites, a fairly substantial disparity. But by 1996, African-Americans were an even more alarming 22 times as likely to be sent to prison in Maryland for drug offenses as were whites, according to the National Corrections Reporting Program.

From 1986 to 1996, the white drug incarceration rate increased by 7 percent and the African-American drug incarceration rate increased by a whopping 268 percent. Measured by changes in the prison population, it looks as if the war on drugs in Maryland during that period was fought almost exclusively on the backs of African-Americans.

While we hear a lot from politicians about violent predators, nonviolent offenders and drug offenders have been the fastest-growing populations in state prisons over the past two decades. Since 1980, while the number of violent offenders in prisons has doubled nationwide, the number of nonviolent offenders has tripled. The number of drug offenders has increased to 11 times the 1980 figure.

These are precisely the kinds of inmates the public believes should be held accountable in ways other than prison.

According to a poll released in February by Hart Research Associates that was commissioned by the Open Society Institute, three-fourths of Americans approve of sentencing nonviolent offenders to probation instead of imprisonment. A substantial majority of the public supports eliminating mandatory sentencing laws and returning sentencing discretion to judges.

Likewise, separate public opinion polls conducted by Parade magazine and ABC News, released in February and March, respectively, found that three-fourths of Americans favor sentencing nonviolent offenders to alternatives to incarceration, such as probation and drug treatment, rather than prison.

Through a combination of sensible changes in sentencing laws and parole practices, legislators and governors in some very conservative places are holding nonviolent offenders accountable for their misdeeds without breaking the bank.

If they can tackle the thorny political and practical problems inherent in making such decisions in politically divided, tough-on-crime states such as Texas and Louisiana, there is absolutely no excuse for Maryland not to reform its system as well.

Vincent Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization in Washington. His report on changes in changing prison policies, "Cutting Correctly: New Prison Policies for Times of Fiscal Crisis," is available at www.cjcj.org.

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