Unfinished Business: How Sentencing Guidelines Reform Can Further Efforts to Reduce Substance Abuse in Maryland

Despite recent efforts in Maryland to expand access to treatment for addicts caught up in the criminal justice system, the bulk of the state resources available for addressing the problem remain "locked up" in the prison system. The nearly 5,000 drug prisoners incarcerated in Maryland (1 in 5 state prisoners) represent a $100 million-a-year "investment" in a failed approach to combating addiction.

In 2004, Governor Robert Ehrlich and state legislature enacted an historic piece of legislation designed to redirect addicts from prisons and jails into substance abuse treatment by expanding the options available to prosecutors, judges and the Parole Commission. That legislation is only as good as the funding that is available to provide the treatment options for the courts divert people to.

A Justice Strategies analysis of sentencing patterns for drug offenses, which was commissioned by The Campaign for Treatment, Not Incarceration, determined that the state's drug sentencing guidelines are part of the problem. The guidelines, which establish recommended sentence ranges based on the nature of the offense and the defendant's criminal history, promote an outdated "lock 'em-up" response to substance abuse by:

  • recommending harsher penalties in drug cases than cases involving violent offenses;
  • making little distinction between major drug dealers and substance abusers who sell just to feed a habit; and
  • treating behaviors common to addiction - such as a record of petty crime or probation failures - more seriously than past violent behavior.

Justice Strategies found that common sense changes to the Sentencing Guidelines could ensure that low-level, nonviolent drug defendants receive sentences that are appropriate and commensurate with public safety.

The recommendations include the following:

  • Establish appropriate sentencing ranges for low-level drug offenses. Currently, an addict who sells a gram of cocaine to feed his or her habit is subject to the same recommended sentence as a drug dealer who sells 100 grams for profit. Reducing penalties for the low-level, nonviolent drug offenses that are disproportionately committed by addicts would serve the interests of justice and public safety, and could result in a nearly 700-bed reduction in the drug prisoner population and as much as $15 million in annual corrections cost-savings.
  • Reserve longest recommended sentences for individuals whose criminal records include past violent, weapon or sex crimes. The method currently used to assess a defendant's criminal record makes no distinction between violent and nonviolent prior convictions. Further, the system assigns greater weight to behaviors that are common to addicts - including the accumulation of minor convictions and violations of supervision conditions - than to other behaviors that may pose a greater risk to public safety. By assigning less weight to nonviolent and non-criminal behavior, the state could potentially free up 350 prison beds and reap $7.5 million in corrections savings that could be redirected to substance abuse treatment.

The report was authored by Justice Strategies analyst Kevin Pranis and commissioned by the Campaign for Treatment Not Incarceration.