- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

BALTIMORE (AP) - Maryland should save prison beds for serious and violent officers, improve probation and parole supervision and take other steps that could reform the state’s criminal justice system and save money, a panel appointed by the governor recommended Thursday.

The Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council says its 19 recommendations could save the state a projected $247 million over the next decade.

Topping the list of recommendations, the panel said Maryland needs to restructure penalties for drug possession and direct more offenders into treatment. For example, the maximum sentences for drug possession for non-marijuana arrests would be significantly reduced. Now, sentences range from 0-4 years. Under the recommendations, a maximum of 12 months would apply to a first conviction. A second and third conviction would bring a maximum of up to 18 months, and a fourth would bring up to two years.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that every Maryland tax dollar spent on our criminal justice system delivers the highest return on our investment in public safety,” said Gov. Larry Hogan. “Throughout its work, the council focused on how to treat offenders suffering from substance abuse or mental health problems, and explored re-entry programs that could help them become contributing members of their communities once they return home.”

Hogan, a Republican, signed legislation this year approved by the Democratic-led Legislature to use a data-driven approach to developing statewide sentencing and corrections policies that could result in legislation in the next session, which begins Jan. 13.

Here are some other recommendations made by the panel:

- Require prompt placement in residential treatment beds for offenders found to be in need of substance abuse treatment. Depending on funding, the council recommends the state health department place offenders in residential treatment beds within 30 days of a judge’s order.

- Eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine penalties.

- Raise the felony theft threshold and concentrate longer prison terms on higher-level theft offenders.

- Expand in-prison good behavior and program incentive credits.

- Use a risk and needs assessment tool to determine supervision levels.

While Maryland has seen declines in both its incarceration and crime rates over the last decade, the state still incarcerates more than 20,000 offenders. That comes at a cost of about $1.3 billion in annual corrections spending.

Here are some of the key findings from the commission:

- 58 percent of prison admissions are for nonviolent crimes.

- Almost 60 percent of prison admissions are failures of probation or post-release supervision.

- 43 percent of probation revocations and more than 70 percent of parole and mandatory supervision returns are for technical violations.

- Offenders sentenced under the guidelines are more likely to be sentenced to incarceration than they were a decade ago.

- Time served has gone up 23 percent in the last decade, driven in part by a 25 percent increase in average sentence length.

The panel received technical assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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