Drug crime is No. 1 reason offenders in Maryland are sentenced to prison

By Ovetta Wiggins, The Washington  Post

Possession of drugs with the intent to distribute remains the No. 1 reason people in Maryland are sentenced to state prison, according to figures presented on Wednesday to a panel charged with finding ways to reduce incarceration and recidivism.

The Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, which consists of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, senior-level government officials, attorneys and law enforcement representatives, received data about who is sentenced to prison, how long they stay and what impact the trends have on the state’s overall prison population.

Felicity Rose, a senior associate for the Crime and Justice Institute, said prison admissions have dropped by 19 percent over the past decade, from 11,078 in 2005 to 8,928 last year. The institute was hired by Pew Charitable Trust, which is partnering with the state to look at the data.

In 2014, 58 percent of the prison admissions in Maryland were for nonviolent offenses. And although there was a 52 percent decline in people going to state prison for possession with intent to distribute over the past decade, the offense was still at the top of the list of reasons newly sentenced prisoners were sent to prison. Drug offenders make up 19 percent of the state’s prison population.

Christopher B. Shank, chairman of the council and head of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, said the data provide the panel with some of the information it will need to make its recommendations to the governor and General Assembly.

“We have to look at what is driving the systems,” Shank said as he opened the meeting. “That’s the question that we will look at at future meetings.”

The panel plans to look more closely at what has caused the number of prisoners from Baltimore City to drop while the overall number from other parts of the state has increased. Panel members also expressed interest in examining sentencing decisions and digging deeper on the 14 percent increase in burglary offenders sentenced to prison in the past 10 years.

The panel plans to release its recommendations in December. It is one of three panels exploring reforms of the criminal justice system. The other panels are looking at best practices for police cameras and police training, and improving community relations.