WASHINGTON – Young males, ages 19 to 21, account for a disproportionate share of the state’s prison population and of the people sentenced in the state in a given year.
But those young males are exactly the ones that experts expect will be helped by a new law to divert non-violent, drug-addicted prisoners to treatment programs instead of jail. Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. is expected to sign the bill into law in May.
“It (the law) should disproportionately benefit younger people because they have less prior arrests and convictions. They are the people the parole commission will be looking to place in the drug programs,” said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.
While 19- to 21-year-olds made up just 4 percent of the state’s male population, they accounted for 17 percent of the people sentenced in the state in the last five years, according to a Capital News Service analysis of sentencing data from the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy.
The data showed that 7,495 men in that age group were sentenced in state courts from 1999 to 2003. Of those, 54 percent got actual jail time instead of an alternative sentence, but they still accounted for 13 percent of the male prison population in the state, said Mark Vernarelli, a Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman.
While the database did not specify the offenses for which those men went to jail, experts agree that drugs are likely the overwhelming cause.
“They are involved in substance abuse. It’s that simple,” said Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter Bielenson. He also said that the vast majority of young people in jail are not there for violent offenses, but for stealing, possession of drugs, drinking in public and other crimes.
That claim appears to be backed up by the data, which said that just 10 percent of the cases in which young men were sentenced were for major offenses. It characterized 80 percent of the offenses as moderately serious, based on such factors as the use of weapons, the vulnerability of the victim and the extent of the injury.
Bielenson said many of those inmates just need help for drugs, depression or post-traumatic episodes, like seeing relatives being shot.
Under the bill, which was backed by the Ehrlich administration, people sentenced for non-violent crimes could be given probation instead of jail time if they would benefit from drug treatment and agreed to undergo such treatment.
The database showed most of the 19- to 21 year-olds were sentenced in courts in Baltimore City or Prince George’s and Baltimore counties, areas that Vernarelli said have traditionally been associated drug activity.
The sentences were from a few days in prison to up to 45 years. With the new law, Schiraldi said jail sentences could be reduced to six to 12 months.
Cindy Smith, the director of the criminal justice program at the University of Baltimore, said that while the new law could get people out of jail in the short term it could have the opposite effect in the long run, if the infrastructure is not in place to treat inmates. Then, young males would go to jail again for other offenses and that would make them less eligible for a second chance of parole, she said.
Schiraldi agreed that the “big catch” is the current long wait for treatment programs. But he also noted that the bill provides $3 million for implementation.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey said the justice system has traditionally used “sticks” to process drug-related cases, but now is trying to use “carrots.” While he could not point to evidence that the approach is working in Maryland, he said it has worked very well in other states.
-30- CNS 04-29-04