ANNAPOLIS – Tourism officials tout Washington County as a Western Maryland, small-town, vacation spot known for streams, orchards, mountains and waterfalls — but it could also be known for putting people behind bars.
Judges there are giving out sentences that show this getaway town could be a stay-away place for criminals.
Though it has six times fewer people than Maryland’s most-populated county, Montgomery, Washington judges sentenced almost twice as many men and almost four times more women to the state prison system in 1999.
And Washington judges last year sent 73 more men and 25 more women to state prison than Montgomery jurists did, according to a CNS analysis of Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services data.
Washington and its sister small Maryland counties — Dorchester, Wicomico, Talbot, Worcester, Charles, Caroline and Somerset — are sending people to prison at higher rates than their urban siblings.
Sentencing experts say caseload congestion in populous areas may be the culprit in the disparity.
“Baltimore City has enormous numbers . . . but when you have that many people you can’t send them all to prison,” said Mike Connelly, executive director of the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy. “They’re already stacking them body on top of body. For Baltimore to do what Wicomico would do would put the system into shock.”
By far, Baltimore, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County send more sheer numbers of people to prison each year, but these jurisdictions contain between 600,000 and 800,000 people each.
Based on percent of population, however, smaller counties have higher sentencing rates.
Dorchester, for example, may be the state’s largest county geographically but it is more than 28 times smaller than Montgomery in population. In 1999, its judges sent 10 women to prison compared to Montgomery’s eight women prisoners.
“Pretty unusual,” said Jenni Gainsborough, senior policy analyst for The Sentencing Project. “You usually see more people being sent to prison in the counties that have big cities.”
Montgomery County is unusual. It sends offenders to state prison at a much lower rate, 0.21 prisoners per 1,000 county residents, than its large-county peers, such as Baltimore County, which sends 1.27 people per 1,000 to state prison. Dorchester’s rate is 2.25 per 1,000.
But experts say smaller counties have fewer alternatives to prison, like drug treatment, job training, anger management and violence-awareness programs. A longtime opponent of over-incarceration especially for nonviolent offenses, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland finds this “very troubling.”
“We have long been concerned by the increasing numbers of crimes requiring prison sentences — particularly for nonviolent offenses,” said Suzanne Smith of the Maryland ACLU.
Montgomery County Circuit Judge Paul H. Weinstein, chairman of the conference of all state circuit judges, declined to comment.
However, the county’s state’s attorney, Doug Gansler, had a lot to say about his jurisdiction. Montgomery County is incomparable when it comes to crime, Gansler said.
“We’re an anomaly. We have far less crime and it’s mind-boggling,” he said.
Last year, Montgomery County only had 15 murders, compared to the District of Columbia, which had 300 murders and 300,000 fewer people.
Smaller counties, Gansler said, have a higher desire to more seriously punish wrongdoers.
“Crime reverberates more loudly in a smaller county,” he said.
That makes it sound like you get a break if you live in a larger county, said Mike Maloney, Dorchester state’s attorney for more than 22 years.
“Judges are impartial,” he said, and equally aggressive across the board.
“It’s all about evidence and a jury. . .and the matter of the temperament of the person who has the black robe on,” he said. “Whether judges in smaller counties have more time to sit there and deliberate these sentences, I don’t know.”
But Maloney did say his smaller caseload makes way for more hands-on involvement.
“I actually go to court. . . . I only have four assistants. We only have one Circuit Court judge,” he said.
While Montgomery County had about 4,848 criminal cases before the Circuit Court last year, Dorchester only had about 652 and Talbot had 396.
“I talked to a Baltimore City Circuit judge who does 55 cases a day,” said Connelly, of the city’s backlog. “How much time can you spend figuring out sentences . . . ?”
Not only does this caseload congestion affect key players of the criminal justice system — the public defenders, state’s attorneys and the judges – it delays the process to where “evidence may decay or disappear and witnesses may move,” said Connelly.
Together, this big-county backlog and small-county down-time are making for comparable sentencing rates.
In 1999, Worcester — with only 44,000 people — sent just seven fewer women to prison than Prince George’s judges sent, even though Prince George’s then had nearly 17 times more people.
And Wicomico last year, with about 84,000 people, sent only one fewer woman than Prince George’s, which has eight times more people.
But when asked whether to call this a problem or not, Connelly didn’t give a direct answer.
“I hesitate. . .It’s not my position. It really depends on the public’s point of view and if the public wants all offenders who commit the same crime to get the same sentence, then this is a problem.”