Faced with an overcrowded, expensive prison system primarily filled with black faces, in his inaugural speech a year ago this month, incoming Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich called for reforms of the state's criminal justice system. A year later, a potent new coalition has emerged to push Ehrlich, the state's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew in the 1960s, to turn his words into deeds.
"We must work together to get nonviolent drug offenders out of jail and into treatment programs, where they belong," said Ehrlich in his speech a year ago.
The Campaign for Treatment Not Incarceration in Maryland (http://www.TreatNotJail.org) wants to do just that. "We want to pass a Prop. 36-type bill that would divert people from prison to treatment, with treatment broadly defined to include things like education and housing," said Vince Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute (http://www.justicepolicy.org), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit research and advocacy group seeking alternatives to imprisonment. "We are also hoping to abolish mandatory minimum sentences, which are in effect for second- and third-time drug offenders in Maryland," he told DRCNet. "We also would like to see good-time credits equalized. Right now, drug offenders are treated like violent offenders when it comes to good time," Schiraldi pointed out. "Remember, Len Bias played ball here, so a lot of really dumb laws got passed after his death back in the day."
And Marylanders, especially black ones, have been paying for it ever since. In a state that is 28% black, almost 75% of prisoners are African-American. And when it comes to drug war prisoners, 90% of Maryland's are black. Drug offenders account for 24% of the state's prison population, leaving Maryland behind only New York and New Jersey when it comes to drug offenders as a percentage of the prison population, according to a Justice Policy Institute report issued in October.
"Maryland is emerging as a national leader in the dubious distinction of drug incarceration," said Schiraldi, coauthor of the report and executive director of the institute.
And that costs money. With the state budget $700 million in the red and with the state owing an additional $300 million it borrowed from the transportation fund last year, the prison budget will inevitably be closely eyed during the state legislative session beginning today.
It's not only dollars that people are concerned about. According to an October-November poll commissioned by the institute (http://www.treatnotjail.org/facts_md_poll_summary.pdf), Marylanders by a two-to-one majority (41% to 21%) said there are too many people in prison in the state, while 53% said being in prison makes it more likely that someone will commit more crimes. And a whopping 73% of those polled said drug treatment was a more effective way of dealing with drug offenders than prison. That figure stayed high across race, class, and demographic lines, with even self-described "very conservative" Marylanders supporting treatment over prison at a rate of 65%.
The research conducted and sponsored by the Justice Policy Institute has been key in the emergence of a political movement to undo the state's draconian drug laws, said Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy (http://www.csdp.org), one of the 27 state and national groups that have joined the coalition. "The JPI research on racism in the Maryland justice system and its polling on attitudes toward reform was very important in energizing people," he told DRCNet. "They got good press coverage, and getting those facts out there really made a difference in opening people's eyes," he said. "Since then, there has been a gradual process of people meeting and getting to know each other."
It has evidently worked. According to Schiraldi, the Maryland Black Legislative Caucus was "furious" over the racially disproportionate imprisonment of African-Americans and will introduce reform legislation next week on Martin Luther King Day. They will introduce a "treatment not jail" bill, he said.
A package of bills is being drafted now, said Tara Andrews of the Maryland Justice Coalition, a group formed specifically to encourage reform of the state's criminal justice system. "Each bill will reflect the goals of abolishing mandatory minimums, increasing good time for drug offenders, and there may be an omnibus bill diverting drug offenders from prison altogether and into community-based treatment," she told DRCNet. "We also anticipate the administration will introduce its own bill. If it is good enough and positive enough, we will support it," she said, "but we don't want little bitty bites. This is the time to be aggressive and do this right."
It's been a long time coming, Andrews and Schiraldi said. "Vinnie and I were both active in the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, and we started meeting with folks this summer to put together a push here to overcome the state's over-reliance on incarceration. After some preliminary research, it became clear that the best way to do that given the fiscal and political position of the state was to concentrate on saving the state money by reducing the prison population."
"For years, this has not been an issue that grabbed the public, and that was reflected in lethargy in the legislature," said Schiraldi. "There had not been an active community advocating for this. It was our job to rouse the people and the politicians. I think that process is off to a good start. The black caucus is energized now, and they're not fooling around," he said. "It is much harder to win reform by passing legislation than through an initiative -- you have to educate the public -- but that rough fight for public opinion has longer lasting effects than a one-time initiative campaign."
The fight for drug sentencing reform in Maryland will be an inside job, said Zeese. "The question is not will we win, but how much we will win," he said. "The governor supports treatment over incarceration, the public supports its, the black caucus is energized. This is not a time for noisy demonstrations in the street but for lobbying in the corridors of power."