Blacks imprisoned disproportionately in Md., study says

Legislative caucus hopes to address wide disparity

76 percent of inmates

October 23, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

African-Americans make up 90 percent of the people incarcerated for drug-related offenses in Maryland and three-quarters of the prison population growth over the past three decades, according to a study to be released today in Annapolis.

The study, commissioned by the Legislative Black Caucus, shows that African-Americans were sent to state prisons at 18 times the rates of whites from 1986 to 1999.

Blacks make up 28 percent of Maryland's population and 76 percent of those in prison, according to the study.

African-American legislators and others are scheduled to hold a news conference today outside the State House to release the report and announce initiatives to address the disparity.

"The main finding is that the war on drugs in Maryland is falling almost exclusively on people of color," said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and co-author of the report.

Del. Salima S. Marriott said the findings reflect societal perceptions of African-Americans in the United States.

"The media tell people every day that African-Americans -- especially African-American males -- are the individuals to be feared in our society," the Baltimore Democrat said. She said that among the initiatives to be proposed is an abolition of mandatory sentencing policies that contribute to the disparities.

The report puts Maryland third -- behind New York and New Jersey -- in the proportion of prison admissions that are for drug offenses: 42 percent.

African-Americans make up 68 percent of those arrested on drug charges in Maryland despite national survey figures showing that blacks and whites abuse drugs at roughly similar rates. Schiraldi said the reason African-Americans get arrested at a higher rate is that "blacks tend to sell drugs in public and whites do it in private."

Once arrested, African-Americans find it harder to avoid conviction because they are more likely to be presented by public defenders with heavy caseloads, Schiraldi said. As a result, he said, blacks coming before a judge are more likely to have more prior offenses than whites charged with similar drug crimes.

Maryland's sentencing guidelines put more weight on previous convictions, even for nonviolent offenses, than many other states, Schiraldi said. In certain cases, the prior offenses can trigger mandatory sentencing. "You can very quickly in Maryland go to the highest offender category even when you're just a low-level schlump," he said.

Even when prior offenses and the current charges are identical, Schiraldi said, judges tend to come down more heavily on African-Americans.

If the guidelines call for nine to 12 months, he said, "the African-Americans are getting closer to 12; the whites are getting closer to nine."

The cumulative effect has been a 611 percent leap in black prison admissions for drug offenses from 1986 to 1999, compared with a 73 percent rise among whites, according to the study.

The report shows that during the past 30 years, the number of whites imprisoned in Maryland had increased by almost 4,000, while the number of African-American inmates has increased by almost 19,000.

Schiraldi said the cash-strapped state could find significant savings on incarceration by channeling more nonviolent offenders into treatment programs. He said Washington state cut $43 million from its corrections budget over two years and shifted $8 million into drug treatment for a net savings of $35 million.

A spokeswoman said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. doesn't deny the disparity shown by the report's findings.

"The governor does acknowledge and agree that there is a disproportion of nonviolent offenders in our prison system that primarily affects African-Americans," said press secretary Shareese N. DeLeaver.

She said Ehrlich has moved to address the problem by putting more money -- $750,000 -- into an expansion of drug courts that stress treatment.

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