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Investing in communities, not prisons

This piece originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

Maryland has a historic opportunity to create healthier communities by reinvesting a significant portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends on incarceration into more effective ways of meeting people's needs and improving public safety.

This spring, Maryland legislators voted to launch Maryland's "justice reinvestment" process. Through this process a council of stakeholders is studying what Maryland is getting for its corrections spending and is working to develop consensus on the changes needed to safely reduce that amount. The goal is to develop a plan by the end of 2015 to reinvest the savings in strategies that increase public safety and reduce recidivism.

That the governor and Maryland legislators supported this legislation is good news, particularly in a state that in recent years has failed to pass meaningful legislation to reform mandatory sentences or a problematic parole process and continues to overuse incarceration. The Justice Reinvestment Council creates the potential for a different, data-driven pathway to changes that frequently get defeated in Annapolis and lays the foundation for a new bipartisan consensus around criminal justice reform.

When the law passed, Gov. Larry Hogan noted, "Taking a tough stance on crime isn't just about incarceration. In order to achieve lasting results in our criminal justice system, we must strike a balance and explore better, smarter options that reduce recidivism and help those who have served their time get back on their feet."

The need to reinvest these dollars effectively was brought into sharp relief after Freddie Gray's death. The neighborhood where he grew up and was arrested, Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park, has one of the lowest life expectancies and rates of educational success in the city, as well as the highest rates of unemployment. It also has more violent crime than other parts of Baltimore. At the same time, it is ground zero for the use of incarceration in the city. The community has the most people in prison of any neighborhood in Baltimore, with an incarceration rate that is four times greater than the U.S. average, and eight times greater than Maryland's incarceration rate. Taxpayers spend $17 million locking up people from the community.

How do we free up the tens of millions of dollars "locked up" in Maryland's prison budget? Council members heard that that there are numerous opportunities to reduce the number of people incarcerated who pose limited risk to public safety. Nearly six in 10 people admitted to prison in 2014 were sent there for a nonviolent crime, with the leading category being a drug offense.

The latest research also shows that the number of incarcerated individuals over 55 years old doubled in the past decade, though there is little relationship between how long someone serves in prison and the likelihood they will reoffend. Reducing sentences and incarceration for nonviolent offenses are two areas ripe for reform that will result in savings to the taxpayer with minimal risk to public safety.

Maryland's justice reinvestment process is examining the data and considering how to invest savings that will come from reduced incarceration to meet people's needs in the community. The council has heard that when a person needs to be connected to employment, housing and other services, that service is best delivered in the community — as close to where they live as possible — and can be most effectively delivered by community organizations.

But to really make a difference in the lives of people from Maryland's most distressed communities, Maryland's justice reinvestment process must be bold.

A bold vision of justice reinvestment is inclusive. Along with legislators, law enforcement and government officials, individuals from the communities most impacted by crime and violence — including victims and people who have been incarcerated and their families — should be at the table to help decide where corrections savings are reinvested.

A bold vision of justice reinvestment also invests the money back into communities and not the justice system. This would create real opportunity for Maryland to invest savings from reduced incarceration to address people's needs in their own communities.

Council members should be asking themselves how to keep the reinvestment dollars in the communities most affected by crime and violence — outside the justice system — to truly address neighborhood needs. Embracing this bold vision will not only reduce the prison population now but will create stronger, safer communities with fewer people incarcerated in the future.

Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute; he previously served as general counsel and interim director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. His email is [email protected].

This piece originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

Follow Marc on Twitter at @Marc4Justice and the Baltimore Sun at @BaltimoreSun

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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