Rethink sentencing to end racial injustice in Maryland

October 26, 2003|By Obie Patterson

MARYLAND RESIDENTS have just learned of a startling injustice that confronts our state's black population.

While African-Americans make up only 28 percent of Maryland's general population, they accounted for 68 percent of drug arrests and 90 percent of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the state in 2001, according to a report by the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. To put it simply, African-Americans with drug problems in Maryland are far more likely to end up behind bars than receive the treatment they need to turn their lives around.

These racial disparities are an offense to the good people of this state, who support fair and effective criminal justice policies. That's why the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus has vowed to take this issue head on by crafting legislation that will make our justice system more equitable by diverting people into treatment and reducing the number of people, especially people of color, who are needlessly incarcerated.

Over the years, our state has moved away from sensible criminal justice policies that offer choices and options to treat addicts and nonviolent offenders in favor of an expensive and inefficient overreliance on prisons for all crimes, large and small.

The causes of addiction and unlawful behavior are many, but increasingly we have only the one blunt instrument of prison to deal with these complex problems.

As our state's dependency on prisons for drug offenses has expanded, so have the disparities in our justice system, according to the report, "Race and Incarceration in Maryland."

Between 1986 and 1999, more than 94 percent of the growth in drug prison admissions were black prisoners, the report said.

The dramatic disparities in Maryland prisons are simply not explained by actual disproportionate drug use or addiction in the black community. National studies show that whites and blacks report drug use and addiction at roughly the same rates. So if abuse and addiction numbers are not dramatically different between whites and blacks, we need to examine other reasons that would explain why so many more people of color do time for drug offenses.

There is no single explanation for the inequities in our criminal justice system. People of color may be more likely to be arrested for certain behaviors than whites, even though both groups commit crimes at similar rates. Once arrested, whites may have better access to high-quality treatment.

A 1997 analysis commissioned by the Maryland Sentencing Commission found that "black and Hispanic defendants convicted of drug offenses were more likely to receive longer sentences than white defendants" even when they had committed similar crimes and had similar prior records.

But while the explanations for the inequities are complex, the remedy is relatively simple. Maryland needs to move away from needless incarceration for nonviolent offenses and drug offenses and support treatment programs that are proven to be more effective and less expensive than prison. By diverting drug and other nonviolent offenders into treatment instead of prisons, Maryland would reduce the racial disparities, save money and improve the health of our communities.

Other states are implementing similar common-sense justice policies. Texas recently passed legislation that will divert drug offenders from prison into treatment, thereby saving $30 million in incarceration costs in 2004 and 2005 and more than $115 million over the next five years as this policy goes fully into effect.

When Maryland starts providing sensible treatment programs and alternatives to prison for drug and other nonviolent offenders, regardless of skin color, we will have a more balanced, fair and effective justice system for all.

Obie Patterson, a Democrat, represents Prince George's County in the Maryland House of Delegates and chairs the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus.

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