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Committee looks into race, incarceration

About 74 percent of inmates in Maryland’s prisons are black — a racial gap one state committee wants to close, though it does not yet know how.

Nine of the 17 members of Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights heard testimony from attorneys, members of the state government and representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Maryland State Police and other state agencies and organizations at a briefing in Annapolis.

The civil rights commission created committees in each state and Washington, D.C., to address a particular racial issue in the state, said Thomas Mackall, who chairs Maryland’s advisory committee. The advisory committee will gather information until July 5 and submit a report with its recommendations to the civil rights commission by December.

“The purpose of today was to hear the relevant information to help better address the issue,” Mackall said.

A January 2011 study by the Institute for Governmental Service and Research at the University of Maryland, College Park, found racial disparities at every step of Maryland’s juvenile criminal justice system — referral, diversion, detention, petitioning, delinquency finding, probation, residential placement and confinement, and transfer to adult court.

“The price is too high and the devastation is too great to remain silent,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington, D.C., bureau. “Families, children and the nation are being robbed of our talent.”

The institute’s study, “Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Maryland Juvenile Justice System,” found that, in 2008, 62 percent of Maryland youth referred to the state Department of Juvenile Services and 80 percent of youth in detention centers were black or Latino.

Shelton laid out a plan that included shifting government funding from prisons to the education system, increasing earned time for early release programs, investing in programs to combat youth violence, increasing education programs for inmates and increasing the rates for parole and release of inmates.

“We need fix the system before we are overwhelmed in terms of financial and human loss,” Shelton said.

Rhea L. Harris, assistant secretary and chief of staff with the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said her department has programs in place to help inmates find work after prison to ensure they do not end up back in the criminal justice system. For example, inmates who are veterans work in veterans’ cemeteries during their incarceration and are placed in jobs through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after they are released.

Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, told the committee that the disparity stems from racial profiling by police officers.

“African-Americans are being solicited by police officers and sought-out by police officers for a different standard of justice,” Murphy said.

While African-American youth account for 40 percent of all youth referred to the justice system, The Institute for Governmental Service and Research study found, they account for 70 percent of those who are detained by police.

Mark J. Carter, deputy director of the Maryland State Police Office of Strategic Planning, said the state police track police traffic reports and review them to ensure there is no unnecessary discrimination.

Ann Wagner-Stewart, assistant deputy state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, said race is never a consideration when her office decides whether to proceed with a case.

“The reality is if you pay for an attorney with continuous knowledge and experience, it is far more likely [you will] have a far better resolution in a courtroom than someone that cannot afford that same representation,” Wagner-Stewart said.

Cynthia M. Boersma, general counsel of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said racial disparities occur at every step of the justice process, from arrest to confinement.

Boersma said the overwhelming majority of clients in her office are black men and youths. Boersma recommended sending those with drug-related offenses to a rehabilitation program instead of prison, reducing sentence lengths and decriminalizing drug addiction and possession.

“We are participating in decimating the African-American community,” Boersma said.