Maryland budget analysts had the right idea when they recently told legislators that the state could save money and adequately staff all correctional facilities by reducing the prison population and closing at least one prison. (Analysts recommend reducing Maryland’s prison population, Associated Press, Feb. 26, 2010.) The reality is that Maryland already is reducing its prison population without risking public safety. But it should do much more.
The high cost of the status quo is staggering. Maryland taxpayers spend almost $800 million locking up people in state prisons. It costs $33,000 a year to incarcerate one person versus only about $1,400 to supervise a parolee for a year. And, supervising parolees in the community offers additional benefits. Men and women who are released from prison on parole can become good employees, contribute to the tax base, and strengthen their families if offered adequate support and guidance.
The good news is that responsibly reducing the prison population does not compromise public safety. During the first six months of 2009, serious crime in Maryland decreased by nine percent from 2008, according to the Maryland State Police. And violent crime fell by four percent. During the same period, Maryland’s prison population also dropped, falling from 23,000 to 21,900 by January 2010.
Why did this occur? More people were released on parole and fewer returned to prison for technical parole violations. This was due to a wise decision by the Maryland Parole Commission to focus on releasing more people who presented little or no risk to public safety. The Commission was able to identify these individuals through a new parole risk assessment tool which it created with assistance from the JFA Institute, a Washington D.C.-based criminal justice think-tank, and with support from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.
In 2002, when this partnership began, the Maryland Parole Commission granted parole in only 24 percent of its cases, even though many eligible prisoners posed little safety risk. That was one of the nation’s lowest parole rates. Today, however, the Commission is approving parole for more than 40 percent of its cases.
But Maryland policymakers must do much more to realize the cost savings of closing a prison. They should increase the amount of “good time” credits prisoners can receive for completing training and treatment programs while incarcerated. This would cut prison stays for people taking steps toward rehabilitation and make them eligible for parole sooner. Maryland also should follow the lead of Nevada where good time credits are offered to people on parole and probation. As a result, individuals are allowed to work toward decreasing the amount of time they spend on parole and probation. This not only saves the costs of supervising parolees and probationers but also reduces the chance the individuals will be sent back to prison on “technical” violations, such as failing to report to a parole officer.
In these tough economic times, Maryland’s policymakers must take bold, yet prudent, actions to save money where possible. Our state already has proven it can release people from prison and supervise them on parole without jeopardizing public safety. Now, it’s time to expand this effort to save even more public dollars and to offer people second chances to become contributing Maryland residents.