WASHINGTON – A higher percentage of Maryland residents is behind bars now than at any time during the century, and criminal justice experts say the number will likely rise into the new millennium.
State prisons held 22,817 inmates in December, almost 19 times as many as they held in 1900. The change is even more dramatic when considered as a percentage of the overall state population: While 0.1 percent of all state residents were in prison at the turn of the century, 0.45 percent are behind bars now.
“We definitely are high,” said Bard Stebbins, an administrator at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “There’s just a lot of other factors going on there. I think it will really take a more intensive study to look at the trends and factors.”
But criminal justice experts said much of the prison population explosion in Maryland, as in the rest of the nation, can be blamed on the nation’s current get-tough-on-criminals stance.
America’s prisons and jails are expected to house 2 million inmates by February, the Justice Policy Institute said in a report released earlier this month. The institute is a project of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a non-profit organization that works to “reduce society’s reliance on the use of incarceration.”
“Since the late ’70s this has been a trend throughout the United States,” said Doris MacKenzie, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland College Park. “We incarcerate more of our population than any other country except maybe Russia.”
And the numbers will keep going up, experts said.
“The next century will start seeing the figures rise even higher,” said Ken Kerle, managing editor of American Jails Magazine, a publication of the American Jails Association. He said jails have become little more than “dumping grounds.”
Maryland corrections officials said they could not release the capacity of the prison system because it would “compromise security.” But the state’s current 22,000 inmates exceed the maximum capacity of 21,673 that was reported by the government-funded Criminal Justice Institute in its 1998 yearbook.
Stebbins said that part of the reason for the climb in the state prison population is that a greater share of Maryland’s criminals are handed over to state officials now than at the turn of the century, when county jails were much more likely to keep prisoners.
“What has happened is we have sort of centralized the correctional function in the Maryland State Division of Corrections,” Stebbins said. “We record much more succinctly the type of actions we take with law breakers and that was probably less formal at the beginning of the period than it is now.”
County jails in Maryland held about 3,500 prisoners in fiscal 1999, Stebbins said. County jail population figures from the turn of the century are not available.
Stebbins said an accurate accounting of county jail inmates in the first part of the century would likely show that the growth of the prison population has not been so sharp over the century.
He also said that 1900 prison population estimates may be low because law enforcement officials then did not have formal procedures for reporting statistics. That makes inmates in local jails are harder to track because the criminal justice system did not keep data on them.
Record keeping improved in 1917 when a unified Prison Control Board was created, joining the Maryland Penitentiary and the House of Correction, which had reported statistics separately before then.
The state prison population got a boost in 1954, when the Patuxent Institution in Jessup started taking in offenders. The system jumped again in 1986, when a new law allowed counties to keep inmates who were serving short terms for minor offenses, but required that criminals sentenced to 18 months or more be sent to the state system.
But most experts say the real boom began in the late 1970s, when courts were quick to hand down harsher sentences for drug violations. In 1970, there were 5,789 offenders in state institutions. That rose to 8,491 in 1980 and then more than doubled, to 17,132 in 1990.
Many more criminals today are receiving harsh sentences because of politicians’ “zero tolerance” approach to crime which is meant to appease public concern about safety, said Henry Brownstein, director of the criminal justice graduate program at the University of Baltimore.
“It’s a drug problem, not a violence problem,” Brownstein said. “We’re pretty quick to use prison as a sanction.
“It just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “We put a lot of people in prison who otherwise wouldn’t have been there.”
Kerle agreed that the record number of inmates in state prisons has little to do with violent crime.
“I think you have to understand the whole philosophy of locking people up,” Kerle said. “Despite the fact that the U.S. Justice Department announced that crime in the country has declined for the sixth straight year, the prison population is going up.”
Brownstein said Maryland’s prison situation could become similar to New York’s in the late 1980s, when more-violent prisoners were released to make room for the drug offenders. Many of them are non-violent, MacKenzie said.
Kerle said the criminal justice system needs to find new ways to punish offenders, like electronic monitoring and community service. Placing non-violent prisoners with violent ones often causes offenders to become more brutal when they are released.
“We’ve made incarceration the punishment of choice,” Kerle said. “But that’s a terrible price for the public to pay.”