Director Chris Shank of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention discusses a new council to root out inefficiencies that drive high costs and recidivism rates in our criminal justice system.

Maryland will soon be undertaking a review of its entire criminal justice system in an attempt to root out inefficiencies that are driving high costs and high rates of recidivism.

Senate Bill 602, signed recently into law by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), establishes a Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council (JRCC) within the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. The council will be chaired by the director of the Office of Crime Control and Prevention, former state senator Christopher Shank, and is tasked with using a data-driven approach in order to “develop a statewide framework of sentencing and corrections policies to further reduce the State’s incarcerated population, reduce spending on corrections, and reinvest in strategies to increase public safety and reduce recidivism,” according to the law.

According to Shank, during a discussion with the AFRO about the work and mission of the council, the review of our criminal justice system will shift the focus from whether the State is being tough or soft on crime, to whether it is being smart.

“In America, in the 60s through the 90s, there was the dichotomy between soft on crime, and tough on crime, and people talked past each other. The result was swings in our criminal justice policy that were ‘A’, either retributive, or ‘B’, focused on rehabilitative . And they kind of crossed each other, and the result was a criminal justice system in the state of Maryland that spends a billion dollars a year and has a recidivism rate of 40 percent. And so, the question is, are there things that we can do better?” said Shank.

Doing better will require being able to make a distinction, with respect to persons who have broken the law, between those we are afraid of and those we are mad at, says Shank, who was quick to note that this turn of phrase did not originate with him.

“People that we’re afraid of, who have committed violent crimes against our citizens, they need to be put in a place where they can do no more additional harm. People that we’re mad at, that have violated laws, that are doing things that are destructive to themselves, others, and society, there are things that we can do within our arsenal that do involve incarceration but also involve finding better ways of dealing with situations,” said Shank.

This means analyzing, and where necessary, rethinking our approach at every stage in the criminal justice process. Shank gives the example of someone charged with a non-violent drug offense such as possession that data shows will be more likely to repeat the offense when incarcerated due to the collateral consequences of being jailed such as job loss and strained personal connections. Addressing this inefficiency should occur at the pre-trial level, before incarceration is on the table.

“What are you going to do during that period of time to give someone the opportunity to take the tools to transform their lives, to make things right in terms of any victims involved, and then to have a successful life when they get on the outside?” said Shank.

Another important stage is at the community corrections level, where people have been released from prison but are still under state supervision (i.e., parole or probation). “There’s a lot more people who are being supervised in the community. What can we do there in terms of treatment, in terms of reentry, in terms of providing employment opportunities? What is going on in terms of the collateral consequences that we need to address that are inhibiting people from successfully reentering society as well?” said Shank.

If Maryland is going to reduce recidivism, not to mention the costs associated with our criminal justice system, then the state needs a complete and data-driven picture of how that system operates. Senate Bill 602 requires the JRCC to request technical assistance from the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Performance Safety Project of the Pew Center on the States for the purposes of analyzing our system and developing the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council’s policy recommendations, which are due to the governor on or before Dec. 31.

“What my goal to produce Gov. Hogan and to the state of Maryland, in terms of this whole process, is, for the first time, a holistic, critical examination of our criminal justice system. Who’s doing what in that criminal justice system, and how efficiently are we doing it, and how can we do it better? Once we have that analysis, then we have an opportunity to look at cost savings, but then we also have an opportunity to reduce the recidivism rate. And that provides a more safe society, a more just society,” said Shank.