ANNAPOLIS – Members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, outraged at their study’s findings of racial disparities among drug offenders in state prisons, said they’ll move quickly to propose legislation to offer more treatment options.
Delegate Obie Patterson, D-Prince George’s, caucus chairman, said at a Thursday news conference to announce the results that he found the figures astounding.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I had no idea it would come in quite so high.”
While blacks represent only 28 percent of Maryland’s population, they constitute 90 percent of people in prison for drug offenses and 68 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, even though national studies show whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, according to the study performed by the Justice Policy Institute at the black caucus’ request.
Caucus members, Prince George’s County NAACP representatives and other state legislators attended the news conference in front of the statute of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Lawyer’s Mall.
Legislators said they will use the statistics to craft bills for the next General Assembly session to try to reduce the prison population and advocate treatment options instead of incarceration. The Assembly convenes Jan. 14.
They hope to fund additional treatment programs with the money saved by reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in Maryland prisons.
“Certainly you can’t have treatment without funding,” Patterson said.
Maryland ranks third in the nation in the number of incoming inmates incarcerated for drug offenses, even though advocates say treatment is a much less expensive option than prison time.
“These findings are outrageous and should give every Marylander pause,” said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and co-author of the study.
Between 1986 and 1996, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses in Maryland grew 19 percent and blacks accounted for more 94 percent of that growth.
“These statistics are real and devastating,” said Sen. Gloria Gary Lawlah, D-Prince George’s. “It is obvious that our efforts have been inadequate. We need to rehabilitate the lives of our young people and keep them out of prison.”
“We can do this. It is a matter of willpower,” she said.
Patterson also said legislators would look at identifying additional buildings that could be converted into treatment facilities.
The institute plans to release county-by-county statistics next month.