Maryland could also reduce its inmate population by introducing graduated sanctions for offenders guilty of technical violations of their probation or parole. Technical violations can include failing to meet with a probation officer or report a change of address. Under current law, such violations automatically result in re-imprisonment, and in 2010 there were some 4,000 cases of people violating parole.
Parole and probation violations are a huge driver of the growth in prison populations nationally. Maryland could significantly cut the number of people who re-enter the prison system for such violations by creating alternative sanctions, such as community service or loss of privileges, that do not require reincarceration.
None of these reforms calls on police or prosecutors to be soft on crime or fail to hold people responsible for serious offenses. There have been too many cases recently in which people who should never have been allowed back on the streets committed heinous crimes because they were able to game the system. (John A. Wagner, the man currently on trial in the killing of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn, is a case in point.)
Rather, these measures are simply a recognition that a substantial proportion of people currently in prison are low-level, low-risk, nonviolent offenders who are unlikely to commit the kinds of serious crimes that most concern the public. The cost of keeping them behind bars outweighs any benefit that accrues to society from their continued incarceration.
Most serious crimes are committed by a relatively small number of violent, career offenders. That's what the criminal justice system should be focused on. There's no reason Maryland can't follow the example of other states that have successfully reformed their laws and drastically reduced the cost of maintaining large prison systems populated by thousands of people who don't really need to be there.