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ACLU Joins Republicans and Democrats to Streamline Maryland’s Bloated Prison System

Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
Rebecca McCray,
Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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February 11, 2011

The ACLU has joined forces with a bipartisan group of legislators and advocates to support a bill that would make great strides toward easing the strain of Maryland’s overpopulated prison system. The bill (S.B. 801), introduced by Republican Michael Hough, would create a pilot program to streamline the state’s parole system with a “graduated sanctions program.” It’s a mouthful, but the concept is ultimately about equipping parole officers with options.

Rather than responding to all types of parole violations with a revocation of parole and a return trip to prison, the new system would provide other types of disciplinary actions for parolees whose violations are minor and do not warrant incarceration. Instead of a blanket solution for every person on parole, the bill would create proactive solutions to individual violations, tailored to match the severity of the infraction. The bill would prevent sending people to prison for long periods of time for minor rule violations – such as forgetting about a parole meeting, being unable to pay court-imposed fees or missing their community service hours.

It’s hard to believe, but there are actually people behind bars around the country just because they missed parole meetings. Over one-third of prison admissions across the country are the result of parole violations like this – not of criminal convictions. Imprisoning people for violations like this does nothing to improve our public safety, and at the same time drains our state budgets. States like Kansas, Hawaii and Wyoming have already implemented parole sanctions systems, like the one proposed in Maryland, with positive results – reducing prison populations and their corrections budgets while maintaining public safety.

As Melissa Goemann, Public Policy Director of the ACLU of Maryland notes, “This bill has the potential to not only create a more just criminal system, but also to achieve considerable benefits for the state’s budget and for Maryland taxpayers. Maryland spends over $1 billion a year on corrections – we should put that money to better use.”

In the midst of a fiscal crisis, Maryland, like so many other states, simply can’t afford to spend such an obscene amount of money on corrections when viable alternatives exist. Maryland’s incarceration rate has tripled since 1980, disproportionately affecting communities of color. In Baltimore alone, more than half of African American men between the ages of 20 and 30 are under the control of the corrections system – most serving lengthy sentences for nonviolent offenses. Even after eventual release, the dark shadow cast by a criminal record leaves a large segment of Maryland’s population facing significant barriers to employment.

Because of statistics like these, there is a growing consensus around the country – and now in Maryland – that we are throwing too many people into prison who don’t deserve to be there. With reforms like the parole sanctions bill in Maryland, we can finally get to a criminal justice system that protects public safety and civil rights and liberties, while also saving taxpayer dollars. It’s a long road, but S.B. 801 is an excellent opportunity for legislators to begin to chip away at the incarceration epidemic that is wreaking havoc not only on Maryland’s communities, but also its taxpayers’ pockets.