Lawmakers in both houses and from both sides of the aisle are currently working on one of the most comprehensive criminal justice reform bills in recent memory. Senate Bill 1005, known at the Justice Reinvestment Act, is an 84-page behemoth of a bill that aims to revamp multiple areas of the current criminal justice system. The act’s two major areas of focus are reducing the state prison population, and then establishing specific avenues for allocating the savings. Maryland taxpayers are currently picking up a $1.3 billion yearly corrections tab, which is astonishingly high as a result of roughly 20,000 people being incarcerated in state and local jail facilities at any given time. For years lawmakers have wrestled with the conundrum of reducing the number of inmates without reducing the safety of our streets, and now it appears as if a reasonable solution is in the works.
Lawmakers want to reduce the prison population by up to 14 percent over the next ten years, thus saving almost $250 million per year. Since 14% of criminals are not simply going to take the next 10 years off, the only way to reduce the prison population is to release some offenders and to not incarcerate others in the first place. Maryland has not devised a revolutionary and unique system of selecting which offenders to release, but rather it is joining the federal government and numerous other states with the goal of reforming criminal drug laws. The bottom line is that lawmakers are finally realizing that society is not best served by spending $100,000+ per year to incarcerate a non-violent drug offender. We can lower maximum jail sentences and eliminate minimum mandatory prison sentences in non-violent drug cases without putting the public in harms way, and we can save millions in the process.
The Justice Reinvestment Act touches on three main ways to accomplish this, including lowering the maximum punishment for possession of narcotics such as heroin and oxycodone and stimulants such as cocaine, from four years to one year for a first offense. Second, the act and other legislation that is already in the works will also effectively do away with ineffective minimum mandatory prison sentences for certain drug felonies such as possession with intent to deliver, manufacturing, and distribution. Repeat drug felony offenders currently face parole ineligible 10-year mandatory sentences, while repeat offenders of violent crimes such as assault and robbery face no increased penalties. The contrast is simply illogical. Finally the act will place limitations on the penalties for certain violations of probation, which especially in the case of drug charges are responsible for hundreds of lengthy prison sentences each year. Reducing penalties for technical violations, or violations that do not involve additional criminal law violations, are the main focus of the act. There is language that would keep litigation of technical violations out of court, and in the alternative would allow probation officers to levy their own punishments. These changes will probably be met with some pushback, and may invoke constitutional law challenges, but it is hard to argue that technical violations are often blown out of proportion in court.
In our next post we will focus on the other half of the Justice Reinvestment Act, which is what to do with all the money that the government stands to save by reducing the prison population. Clearly the government has no intention of giving it back to the taxpayers, but will it be put to good use?
Benjamin Herbst is a Maryland criminal defense attorney who specializes in drug offenses such as possession with intent to distribute and violent offenses such as robbery and assault. Contact Benjamin for a free consultation anytime at 410-207-2598.
Senate committee debates sweeping justice reform bill, fredericknewspost.com.