Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget is coming out this week, and while there are many items various constituencies would like to see included, here's one that Maryland should do without: $181 million for a new women's jail in Baltimore.
This recommendation is absolutely not based on a belief that the current pretrial facilities for women at the Baltimore jail are adequate; having toured the facility, I can say with certainty that I wouldn't want to spend a night there, let alone the months many women spend awaiting their day in court. It is based on our research that shows Baltimore is jailing too many people, including too many women. To build another jail now — even one smaller than the 800-bed facility originally proposed — before a plan to reduce the jail's population is developed will mean more people behind bars and increased social and financial costs for Baltimore and Maryland.
There are a number of ways that the jail population can be decreased. First, many women currently in the jail shouldn't be. More than three-fourths of the women in the jail on a given day in 2010 were there for nonviolent offenses; more than one-third of these women were arrested for drug offenses. More than half of women surveyed a few years ago upon leaving the jail indicated they had used heroin recently, while 59 percent had been diagnosed with depression and one-third with bipolar disorder.
While separate statistics are not available for women, more than 17 percent of people at the jail for whom bail was an option were unable to make a $5,000 bail (which equates to a $500 bail bond). Is a jail — even a "nicer" jail — really the right place for poor, mentally ill and drug-addicted women accused of nonviolent offenses?
We can, should and must do better for the women of Baltimore.
A number of local and state entities working collaboratively could reduce unnecessary detentions so that the jail is reserved only for the small number of people who pose a reasonable risk to public safety while awaiting trial. Instead of relying on commercial bail, the courts should expand the use of pretrial release supervision and services, which cost about $2.50 per day versus the $100 a day that a jail bed costs. Moving just 100 women a day to pretrial supervision for 30 days, the average number of days until trial, could save Maryland more than $3.5 million per year. Court processes, including hearings for probation violations, should be streamlined so women don't spend months waiting for their cases to be resolved. More women with mental illnesses and substance dependence problems could be diverted to treatment. And, while the Baltimore police have done a good job in reducing unnecessary arrests, issuing citations for minor offenses would further shrink the unnecessarily high number of people in jail.
The jail population can also be reduced through investments outside the criminal justice system. Some of the savings from not building a new jail should be used for expanded services that increase the chance of successful reentry into the community. These services are critical, as are educational, vocational and other social programs that help people, and especially youth, stay out of the justice system.
Implementing such an approach is complicated in Baltimore because improving these services costs local money, whereas any savings from reduced jail size go to the state. We need an innovative strategy to share the savings of a smaller jail with the Baltimore systems that help make it happen. Other states have done this, particularly with their juvenile justice systems.
Difficult economic times often call for difficult budget decisions. Fortunately, the decision to abandon plans to build new women's jail is an easy one. By instead focusing on reducing the jail population and improving services and conditions there, policymakers will save money for all Marylanders and create lasting improvements for Baltimore.
Tracy Velázquez is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.