Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act: What You Need to Know

Brett Smoot*

On May 19, 2016, Governor Larry Hogan signed the Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA) into law.  Proponents of the JRA believe that the Act represents a progressive and necessary step in reforming the state’s criminal justice system.  However, the JRA also represents the largest and most comprehensive criminal justice reform to pass in a generation.  This raises several questions.  What issues caused this legislation to be passed?  What exactly does the JRA do?  What are some of the potential flaws in the Act?  For anyone involved in Maryland’s criminal justice system, the answers to these questions are pertinent.


            The origins of Maryland’s JRA began with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).  In 2010, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) launched the JRI, with funding appropriated by Congress.  See What Is JRI?, Bureau Just. Assistance, (last visited Oct. 20, 2016).  JRI provides technical assistance to states and localities as they implement a data-driven approach to criminal justice reformation.  Id.  To develop such an approach, policymakers in JRI states establish a small bipartisan working group of elected and appointed officials to work with nationally recognized criminal justice policy experts.  Id.  Together, these groups analyze numerous different aspects of a state’s criminal justice system to determine how public safety can be more efficiently achieved.  Id.  Currently, twenty-seven states participate in JRI, and at least six more undertook similar efforts before JRI’s launch.  See JRI Sites, Bureau Just. Assistance, (last visited Oct. 20, 2016).

Maryland joined JRI in 2015 when Governor Hogan and legislative leaders established the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council (JRCC).  See Newt Gingrich & Pat Nolan, Opinion, The Conservative Case for Criminal Justice Reform in Md., Balt. Sun (Sept. 4, 2015, 2:51 PM),  The JRCC’s research and statistical findings paved the way for Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act.  The JRCC began with some general criminological research and found the following: First, a growing body of research shows that prison terms are not more likely to reduce recidivism than noncustodial sanctions.  Second, for some offenders, studies have shown that prison can actually increase the likelihood of recidivism.  Finally, there is growing evidence showing that adding lengths of time to prison sentences has no impact on recidivism.  Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, Final Report 5 (2015),

With this research in mind, the JRCC then compiled and analyzed Maryland’s prison data.  Of the many findings, there are a few of note.  For instance, in 2014, 58% of offenders admitted into prison were sentenced for nonviolent crimes.  Id. at 7.  Additionally, nearly 60% of admitted prisoners in 2014 were on probation or post-release supervision prior to entering prison.  Id. at 8.  Moreover, drug offenders currently constitute a substantial portion of the prison population.  Id. at 7.  The daily cost of incarcerating an individual in Maryland ($25.63) is more than five times higher than the daily cost of community supervision ($4.55).  Id. at 11.  While there are over twice as many people on supervision as there are incarcerated, nearly 60% of the 2016 corrections budget went to correctional institutions, and only 7% went to community supervision.  Id.  In other words, the JRCC’s findings strongly suggested that reform was necessary.


            The response to the JRCC’s report was the enactment of the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Act.  A document of more than 100 pages, the Act aims to reduce Maryland’s prison population and use the savings to focus on rehabilitation as opposed to incarceration.  See Michael Dresser, Hogan Signs Bill to Overhaul Maryland Criminal Justice System, Balt. Sun (May 19, 2016, 7:09 PM),  Amongst the many changes made to Maryland’s sentencing, release, and supervision policies are the following. First, the Act reduces the maximum penalties for convictions on drug distribution charges.  Second, the Act repeals mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.  Finally, the Act establishes sanctions short of reimprisonment for parole and probation violators.  See generally Justice Reinvestment Act – Contents, Md. Alliance for Just. Reform, (last visited Oct. 20, 2016) (breaking down the JRA into sections and describing the contents of each section).  Most of the substantive and procedural provisions of the Act go into effect on October 1, 2017.  Id.

Despite the delayed effect of these provisions, the JRA impacted the court’s ruling in Camper v. StateSee No. 2003, 2016 WL 3130009 (Md. App. June 3, 2016).  In that case, the appellant had been convicted of distribution and possession of crack cocaine, as well as illegally possessing ammunition for a regulated firearm.  Id. at *1.  On appeal, the court affirmed the appellant’s conviction, which carried the mandatory minimum sentence of twenty-five years imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  Id. at *6.  However, the court also noted the effects of the JRA, which create a new procedure to provide reconsideration of preexisting mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.  Id.  Because the appellant’s mandatory minimum sentence was imposed on or before September 30, 2017, the court held that, in accordance with the JRA, the appellant was permitted to file a motion under Maryland Rule 4-345 to modify or reduce the mandatory minimum sentence.  Id. at *6–7.  As Camper v. State exemplifies, the JRA aims to improve public safety by favoring improved supervision and rehabilitation over increased incarceration.


            Like any bipartisan effort, the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Act is ultimately a compromise; as a result, it receives its share of criticisms.  Some of these criticisms include repealing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes, reducing sentences for some drug offenses, increasing the penalty for second-degree murder to forty years, and deciding not to reduce other penalties.  See Dresser, supra.  In particular, critics of repealing mandatory minimums claim that the JRA eliminates a valuable tool used in striking plea bargains.  Id.  Other critics simply believe that lawmakers further diluted the already heavily debated recommendations of the JRCC, thereby producing a bill that leaves a lot to be desired.  Id.

Despite these specific criticisms of Maryland’s JRA, one may argue that the lawmakers responsible for it were aware of some of the criticisms of Justice Reinvestment Initiative states in general.  For instance, JRI critics contend that while JRI reform improves supervision of offenders, the legislation does little to impact sentence length directly.  See Jessica M. Eaglin, The Drug Court Paradigm, 53 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 595, 628 (2016).  Critics argue that such reforms decrease the number of offenders entering prison but do little to shorten the sentences of those who are already incarcerated.  Id.  As a result, short-term decreases will eventually yield to long-term growth.  Id at 629.  Maryland’s JRA, however, not only provides reduced sentences for certain crimes, but also provides paths for offenders who are currently incarcerated to potentially shorten their sentences.  See Justice Reinvestment Act – Contents, supra.  Camper v. State is a prime example, as the JRA proffered the appellant in that case an opportunity to have his mandatory minimum sentence modified or reduced.  Camper, 2016 WL 3130009, at *6–7.  Therefore, it is possible that Maryland’s JRA improved upon some of the reform efforts of other JRI states.


            At this time next year, the provisions of Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act will be in full effect.  By following the lead of other JRI states, Maryland has committed itself to a criminal justice policy that places an increased focus on supervision and rehabilitation while decreasing its focus on incarceration.  While supporters and critics continue to debate the efficacy of the JRA, it is clear that the Act will have a significant impact on Maryland’s criminal justice system.  Whether that impact is more positive or more negative remains to be seen.

* Brett Smoot is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law where he is a staff editor for Law Review. In the summer of 2016, he interned with the Judicial College of Maryland in Annapolis. He currently interns at Farace & Scherr, P.A.


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