WASHINGTON – The growth rate of Maryland’s prison population dropped dramatically in recent years after an extended period of rapid increase, according to statistics from the Department of Justice.
Between June 1997 and July 1998, the number of inmates in Maryland state prisons increased by only 0.7 percent — from 22,415 to 22,566 prisoners — continuing a downward trend in population growth that began in 1995.
That trend gave Maryland one of the slowest-growing prison populations in the nation. The number of state inmates nationally grew by 4.8 percent during the same period.
By contrast to the recent figures, Maryland’s prison intakes had been on a steep climb for most of the previous decade. From 1984 to 1994, the number of inmates grew by 59.6 percent — or more than eight times as fast per year, on average, than in 1998.
While the number of state inmates is still growing, it is now expanding at a rate of less than one new inmate every two days.
Statisticians, experts and officials offered varying explanations for the change, suggesting everything from a drop in the crime rate to already- overcrowded prisons.
Allen Beck, the chief of corrections statistics for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said sentencing laws play a major role in the slowed growth of the national prison population.
Because stiffer sentencing laws mean fewer inmates are being released, the overall prison population is up, he said. That means that the percentage growth in prisons will go down, even if the same number of convicts are being incarcerated from year to year.
“What we’re seeing now is the impact of sentencing reform causing longer lengths of stay in prison,” Beck said. “At any one time, the prison population is a reflection of existing sentencing options.”
Maryland’s mandatory sentencing regulations provide a wider range of sentences for crimes than many other states, said Kim Hunt, executive director of the Maryland Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy. But Hunt said judges and prosecutors in the state are pursuing longer sentences within that range, resulting in longer lengths of stay in state prisons.
“The percentage of sentence served in Maryland is relatively high compared with other states,” Hunt said. “Laws in Maryland, because they don’t mandate a sentence, leave it to the discretion of judges and prosecutors who deal with it on a case-by-case basis.”
In 1997, violent offenders in Maryland served an average of 56 percent of their sentence compared with 54 percent nationwide, and the mean maximum sentence was 106 months in the state compared with 93 months nationally, according to Justice Department statistics.
But longer sentences likely have only minimal impact on the percentage growth rate of Maryland prisons, where the number of new inmates has dropped sharply, along with the rate.
Beck said that the capacity of state facilities can also dictate the growth rate of prison populations. In other words, if the state cannot afford to increase the prison capacity, the population tends to grow more slowly.
“There is only so many you can squeeze into existing capacity,” Beck said.
As of February, Maryland prisons designed for 13,000 inmates were housing 22,000, according to the Maryland Division of Corrections.
“We have put inmates in gyms, we’ve double-bunked them, we’ve put them in libraries and recreation rooms,” said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “But we have not released massive amounts of inmates due to overcrowding.”
Sipes attributed the slow growth to the state’s focus on increasing the number of jail beds in county facilities rather than increasing the capacity of the overcrowded prison system.
“In the last several years, our increased focus has been adding jail beds,” said Sipes. “There was a desperate need for them that was greater than that for prison beds.”
But Jeffrey Washington, deputy executive director of the American Correctional Association in Lanham, does not think that Maryland’s overcrowding has had much of an effect on prison populations.
“I don’t think not having enough room has stopped folks from bringing people in,” Washington said.
Instead, Washington credits the slowing growth to a combination of the decreasing violent crime rate and the use of alternatives to prison, like home detention.
With 847 crimes per 100,000 residents in 1997, Maryland’s violent crime rate hovers well above the national rate of 611 per capita, said Beck, but the state’s rate is falling faster than the national rate.
Factors like the booming economy and an older population may also contribute to the decline, said Washington and others.
But so do effective intervention programs — including Maryland’s corrections options programs, which Sipes said have affected prison populations. Those programs include home detention, prison “boot camps” and “Break the Cycle,” which requires that certain offenders undergo drug testing and treatment after their release from prison.
“These programs are designed to deal with a very basic question: Who do you want to occupy prison beds?” Sipes said.
Sipes said the department wants to expand such intervention programs in coming years, but he also said it is likely the state will invest in higher- security prison facilities in the near future.
And because Maryland’s prison population has grown in cycles, he expects it will be on the rise in coming years.
“It goes through periods of growth and lower growth, depending on society’s priority at the time,” said Sipes.