and all these cities, you have over 5,000 black males that are dying and no race of people can accept that. It’s not acceptable.”
One of the issues Williams spoke about was police-community relationships which he says needs to be repaired. He said there is distrust around communities as police officers and citizens are on edge.
For Williams, he sees a need to bring all stakeholders together to develop a more uniformed strategy to get more training or community policing to bridge that gap between law enforcement and citizens.
“As a citizen, as a father of three boys and a grandfather of four boys, I’m very concerned about that. We’ve got to pull together all of the stakeholders — community leaders, law enforcement and correctional officials and business community and social scientists,” said Williams.
Williams also spoke about the mass incarceration problem. There are too many people who are being incarcerated, which stems from legislation that enhance the penalties, mandatory minimum, or the “three strikes you’re out” kind of situation, he said.
“These methods of mandatory minimum, what they’ve done is that it has taken the power away from judges and put it in the hands of prosecutors to make a decision,” he said. “I sat on the federal bench for 20 years and it was different for me coming from a state system into a federal system. Under the state system, state judges had the power as opposed to the federal judges. In the federal system, the United States attorney has the power and they determine who has to defend what. Essentially what happens is that people end up having to plead guilty or not go to trial because they cannot risk the huge penalties and punishment that goes along with being found guilty of an offense in the federal system.”
The recommendation, according to Williams, is for Congress to fix that and give more power to the federal judges — who are confirmed and appointed by the president — so they can take into consideration the unique circumstances and experiences of defendants before sentencing them.
“People just don’t know about the criminal justice system. They don’t have an understanding,” said Williams.
According to the Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention (GOCCP), GOCCP values evidence-based policies and practices that institute collaboration and provide resources to achieve significant impact on crime. The office exists to educate, connect, and empower Maryland’s citizens and public safety entities through innovative funding, strategic planning, crime data analysis, best practices research and results-oriented tomer service.
In an effort to improve public safety and control corrections costs through criminal justice reform, the Maryland General Assembly established the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council (JRCC) under Senate Bill (SB) 602, which was signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) last year. The JRCC had to develop a framework of sentencing and corrections policies with the goal of safely reducing the number of inmates in Maryland prisons, controlling state spending on prisons, and reinvesting those savings into more effective strategies to increase public safety and at the same time help nonviolent offenders from returning to prison. SB 602 required the council to report its findings and recommendations to Hogan and the General Assembly by Dec. 31, according to the GOCCP website.
“The council consisted of 21 members representing diverse viewpoints of the criminal justice system,” said Tiffany Waddell, director of federal relations for Hogan’s office. “The council examined 10 years of correction data. Although prison admissions are down 19 percent, 58 percent of
cus- prison admissions were sentenced to non-violent crimes [over the last decade]. … Fifty-eight percent of those admitted to prison were previously on community supervision.”
Waddell said the JRCC held several meetings throughout Maryland with stakeholders — including faith-based groups, civil rights advocates, litigation organizations and local labor unions – to obtain recommendations and ideas on how to make Maryland a better, safer place. The council voted to approve 19 of those recommendations, taken that they are “projected to avert $247 million in spending over the next 10 years and safely reducing the prison population by 14 percent,” she said.
Another issue that Waddell said is closely linked to the JRCC is heroin and opioid use, which has more than doubled in Maryland over the last decade. Between 2010 and 2013, cases of heroin-related overdose deaths increased by 95 percent with an estimated one in 10 citizens having an addiction. Some parts of Maryland have the highest capita rate of heroin and opioid use in the United States, nearly tripling the number of emergency room visits since 2010, according to a fact sheet from the office of Lt. Governor Boyd K. Rutherford (R).
Waddell said the Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force — chaired by Rutherford — developed a wide range of recommendations including expanding access to treatment and enhanced quality of care, boost overdose prevention efforts, escalate law enforcement options, strengthen the reentry and establish alternatives for incarceration, reporting center pilot program to integrate treatment into supervision, promote educational tools for youth, parents and school officials and to improve the state support services program.
In addition, Waddell said the Hogan administration has been focused on ensuring the rights of federal crime victims by increasing impact dollars from $8 million to $36 million. This not only “represents an opportunity to make significant improvements with those assistance efforts, but a responsibility to do so in a transparent and effective manner” as well, she said.
Maryland State Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s) — who is a member of the JRCC — said the state spends about $1.3 billion annually on incarceration, putting as many as 20,000 people behind bars. After the JRCC took a “deep dive” into Maryland’s corrections and sentencing system for a period of six to seven months, the council found that “our policies don’t match our goals,” he said.
“We say we’re interested in reducing recidivism and getting people who have behavioral health problems and drug addiction problems help, and yet, we don’t fund those programs. And worse, when someone needs help, they spend an average of 167 days waiting for that. That’s just completely unacceptable,” said Barron. “So we’re trying to reduce that 167 to 30 or 21 days max.”
When it comes to the 58 percent of non-violent offenders who are incarcerated, Barron said they often serve longer sentences and have to spend more time waiting for parole eligibility than offenders who are incarcerated on violent crimes.
“Our recommendations really would reorient our sentencing and correctional policies to match with what our goals are supposed to be,” he said. “We’re going from being tough on crime to being smarter on crime. … The bills that we’ve introduced hopefully will start correcting that issue.”
While being tough may be good for the public’s protection, Hoyer said that’s not always a smart move because it can lead to a negative result. That’s not only “the complexity in trying to deal with the public’s apprehension, but also educating them as to what works in law enforcement” from a political standpoint, he said.
“We can’t arrest our way out of a lot these issues,” Anne Arundel County Police Department Deputy Chief Pamela Davis said. “Funding for treatment programs for mental illness is huge for law enforcement because obviously we’re that first part of the criminal justice system.”
“Mental health is a huge challenge to us,” added Prince George’s County Sheriff Melvin C. High. “Many of the people that we arrest have mental health issues … and we’re the last resort for their families to try and get them into a system.”
Hoyer said criminal justice reform starts with investing in mental health, investing in early childhood and education as well as providing more resources to help divert people from criminal behavior.
“If you don’t have resources to have available or things that people need to divert them from criminal behavior or to solve a domestic problem or mental health problem, you shouldn’t be surprised that it’s going to get worse,” said Hoyer. “It’s an opportunity to change behavior.”
Maryland State Del. Erek L. Barron, front left, speaks at a criminal justice reform roundtable hosted by U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer on March 28 at Prince George’s Community College in Largo. Barron is a member of the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council which is the result of Senate Bill 602 passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan last year.