Unfortunately, violent crime is a persistent reality in Baltimore and throughout Maryland. Since previous attempts to reduce or eliminate this scourge have failed, the time is right to look at the facts and consider expanding approaches that are working.
Throughout U.S. history, the most common response to crime has been mass incarceration. The United States contains 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population — about 2.3 million Americans.
African-American men make up only 6.5 percent of the U.S. population, but 40 percent of people in prison. The disparity is not because African-Americans commit more crimes: the FBI reports that in 2012, only 27.6 percent of adults arrested in the U.S. were black, let alone black men.
So what accounts for the gross racial disparities in incarceration rates?
Starting in 1968, there were three waves of mass incarceration in this country, each one a thinly veiled attempt to target and punish African Americans: Richard Nixon built his Southern strategy on a War on Crime that concentrated on urban centers with large black populations; Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs punished sales or use of crack cocaine, the drug of choice in black communities, much more harshly than the sale or use of powder cocaine largely used by whites; and Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill resulted in a huge expansion of the prison system by promoting so-called “truth-in-sentencing” laws requiring prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence and by requiring life sentences for repeat offenders.
These draconian laws ignored the root causes of crime like poverty, lack of job opportunities and drug addiction, and promoted the scurrilous idea that crime is simply the result of moral failings, and that the threat of incarceration would be enough to deter potential law-breakers.
We know how well that’s worked out.
These policies decimated black communities, trapping members of several generations in a deadly cycle of poverty and incarceration. Indeed, the fact that so many African-Americans have succeeded despite these brutal barriers is a testament to the collective strength of black communities.
For a more complete look at the ways our criminal justice system continues to over-incarcerate African-Americans, I strongly recommend Michelle Alexander’s excellent book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
During the Obama administration, federal and state officials began to reverse these failed, inherently racist policies. Several states, including Maryland, relaxed mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses. But with the arrival of the Trump administration, the pendulum is swinging back toward these unjust and unjustified policies — unfortunately, with the support of many local officials, including Democrats. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated he wishes to revive the war on drugs and reduce the discretion of judges to impose alternative sentences and to increase the use of mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws.
One would think that a progressive state like Maryland would resist the temptation to turn the clock back but in the current legislative session, Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed three bills that would do just that. The bills would drastically increase the length of time before an individual would be eligible for parole; severely cut back on parole eligibility under any circumstances; prohibit drug or alcohol evaluation or treatment unless the individual was eligible for parole; and increase penalties for the use of a firearm in the commission of certain crimes, even if no one is at home during a burglary and if the defendant simply made threats without using the gun at all.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chair of the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, proposed a bill that rubber stamps many elements of Gov. Hogan’s and wedged it into another bill to create what the Baltimore Sun editorial board called “Franken-legislation.” The editorial goes on to say of Sen. Zirkin’s bill, “The legislation remains focused on the notion that we can incarcerate our way out of crime, when experience has shown us that approach does not solve all problems and can come with great fiscal and social costs.”
Sen. Zirkin justifies his “Franken-legislation” by suggesting increased sentencing provisions encourage plea bargains. But 94 percent of criminal cases end in plea bargains now because there aren’t enough judges, prosecutors and public defenders to bring those cases to trial.
Furthermore, the Innocence Project conservatively estimates that 1 percent of all people incarcerated in the U.S. – 20,000 people – are guilty of no crime whatsoever. What kind of criminal justice system coerces people to plead guilty, knowing that substantial numbers of them are not even guilty of the reduced charge to which they will inevitably plead?
We know from previous waves of mandatory minimum sentencing legislation that these laws devastate already impoverished city neighborhoods without any discernible effect on the crime rate. Study after study, including a Pew Charitable trust study released just this month, confirm what social scientists know: mass incarceration may be an easy way for politicians to look “tough on crime” but it does not actually reduce crime.
But we know some things that do prevent crime. The Baltimore City Health Department’s Safe Streets program, for example, has a significant impact on violence and crime in the areas where it operates. Its remedies, including de-escalation, public education and connections to community resources, are informed by former youth offenders and members of impacted communities.
Sen. Zirkin’s bill includes minimal additional funding for Safe Streets. Advocacy groups have recognized that this sop to smart-on-crime measures is inherently inconsistent with the overall punitive and racist nature of the bill: the ACLU, the Public Defender’s office and Jews United for Justice are among the many groups actively working to defeat Sen. Zirkin’s bill, just as they did (successfully) last year with the bail-industry-written bill that he backed.
The popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Surely, the history of mandatory minimums and enhanced sentencing should demonstrate that these misnamed “tough-on-crime” measures simply do not work.
The General Assembly should reject the vengeful Trump-Sessions approach to crime that Zirkin’s crime bill exemplifies and instead adopt effective community-based smart-on-crime programs.
Sheldon H. Laskin is an attorney and candidate for State Senate in the 11th District. Learn more at sheldonlaskin.com.