There is currently much debate and discussion in Baltimore City about the best strategies to reduce the violence that currently plagues our City. As policymakers, civic leaders and concerned community members come together to identify and implement the best solutions, it is prudent that we revisit what the last 40 years has taught us about tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimum sentencing.
The failed war on drugs teaches us that tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, do not have a deterrent effect on would-be offenders. Rather, numerous research studies show that the greatest impact of these policies was a dramatic increase in local, state and federal arrests and incarceration rates, earning the United States the unfortunate distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
With regard to attempts to reduce gun violence specifically, a 2013 report by the Bluhm Legal Clinic of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law found that 29 studies conducted over more than two decades established that “policies [such as enhanced prison terms] rooted in the deterrence theory framework . . . have been shown to have little empirical support.” As revealed by The Right Investment? Corrections Spending in Baltimore City, a 2016 report published by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., Baltimore is already Maryland’s epicenter for incarceration. While only one of 10 Maryland residents is from Baltimore, one of three Maryland prisoners is from the City. As a result, Maryland taxpayers spend $300 million each year to incarcerate people from Baltimore City
The failed war on drugs also teaches us that tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, have historically had a disparate impact on black men. That should give us all pause, especially in view of the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent finding that the Baltimore Police Department makes unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests and does so disproportionately against African Americans. Baltimore’s jail population is already 90% black, and Maryland’s prison population is already 72% black, both astounding rates considering that African Americans make up just 63% of the city’s population and 31% of the state’s. In our urgent search to stop the violence, we must be careful not to create additional policies that intentionally or even inadvertently pull more black men into Baltimore and Maryland’s correctional systems, saddling them with criminal records that will exacerbate their already disproportionately high rate of unemployment.
A core problem with mandatory minimum sentences is that they cast too wide a net and do not allow a judge to distinguish the facts of one case from the facts of another case. For instance, mandatory minimum gun laws do not allow a judge to differentiate between a person carrying a gun for the express purpose of doing harm and an otherwise law-abiding person who is carrying a gun because they live in a dangerous neighborhood and fear for their lives. While both persons are in violation of the law, the appropriate sanction should differ based on the circumstances. That is fair and balanced justice, and mandatory minimum sentences don’t accomplish that.
Finally, in our search for public safety it is important that we pay attention to national and state trends in criminal justice reform. Across the nation, local and state jurisdictions are rethinking their approach to crime and taking steps to reduce incarceration rates without compromising public safety. In 2016, Maryland adopted the Justice Reinvestment Act, legislation that begins to move Maryland away from harsh sentencing and towards more investments in programs and interventions that prevent crime in the first instance. The Act also helps people who commit offenses to change their behavior and help repair the harm that they have done.
The urgency of the moment for Baltimore City cannot be overstated. The violence is intolerable and demands that we move swiftly and certainly. As we do so, however, we must heed the lessons that history and extensive research teach us about effective and racially just approaches to improving public safety in the short- and the long-term.