Why Maryland Needs Truth-in-Sentencing

Testimony Crime and Justice

Why Maryland Needs Truth-in-Sentencing

March 10, 2009 10 min read
David Muhlhausen
Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
David B. Muhlhausen is a veteran analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis.

Statement before the Judiciary Committee of the Maryland, House of Delegates Senate on March 10, 2009


My name is David Muhlhausen. I am Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation. I thank Chairman Joseph F. Vallario, Jr., Vice-Chairman Samuel I. Rosenberg, and the rest of the committee for the opportunity to testify today regarding sentencing reform in Maryland. The views I express in this testimony are my own and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.

Violent Crime in Maryland

From 1995 to 2007, violent crime in Maryland has declined from 986.9 incidents per 100,000 residents to 641.9 incidents per 100,000 residents--a reduction of 35 percent.[1] Despite this fortunate trend, as Chart 1 details, Maryland's violent crime rate has been consistently higher than the national rate since 1964. In 2007, Maryland's violent crime rate was 37.5 percent higher than the national rate of 466.9 incidents. In this same year, only 8 states had a higher violent crime rate than Maryland's rate. More troubling, Maryland had the second highest murder and robbery rates in the nation in 2007--9.8 murders and 236 robberies per 100,000 residents. From 2000 to 2007, Maryland's murder rate increased by 21 percent--8.1 murders per 100,000 residents to 9.8 murders per 100,000 residents.

Maryland's Violent Crime Rate Surpasses the National Rate

The Problem of Lenient Sentencing

A very likely explanation for Maryland's high violent crime rate may be its sentencing system that is too lenient, especially for violent crimes. The concern over high crime rates and a failed rehabilitative model of corrections led federal and many state governments to reform their correctional systems. Many states have adopted "truth-in-sentencing" laws, where the goal is to ensure that offenders convicted of violent crimes actually serve most of their incarceration sentences.

In authentic truth-in-sentencing states, violent crime offenders sentenced to prison are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences with the possibility of early release for the remaining 15 percent of the sentence for good behavior. Upon completion of at least 85 percent of their prison sentences, offenders may be returned to society on supervised release.

While Maryland law requires violent crime offenders sentenced to prison to serve only 50 percent of their sentences, a recent case reported by The Baltimore Sun demonstrates the inadequacy of Maryland's system. One month after an offender was convicted of armed robbery, The Baltimore Sun reported that the son-in-law of the 66-year-old robbery victim was notified of the convicted offender's forthcoming parole hearing.[2] The armed robber was sentenced to 10 years in prison with all but three years suspended by the judge. The parole hearing, set for this summer, will determine if the armed robber is eligible to be paroled in February 2010 because the time the offender served in jail awaiting trial counts toward his suspended sentence. Thus, a ten-year sentence was reduced by the judge to only three years. Now Maryland's corrections system may release the armed robber after only serving 1.5 years--15 percent of the original sentence. The General Assembly should consider ending the state's revolving door of justice that does not serve the interests of law-abiding citizens.

Reasons to Support Truth-in-Sentencing

Truth-in-sentencing can be justified for several reasons. First, long prison terms for serious and violent crimes are just. Second, incapacitation and deterrence works.

Longer prison terms for serious and violent crimes are just. Maryland's current sentencing system grants judges and parole boards too much discretion in sentence lengths and release decisions. This discretion all too often comes at the expense of public safety. In addition, Maryland's diminution credit system makes sentences too lenient for serious and violent offenders. The diminution credit system allows an inmate to earn up to 20 days off his sentence for every month of good behavior and participation in rehabilitation services. When the inmate's diminution credits equals the number of days remaining on the inmate's sentence, the inmate is eligible for mandatory release.

Real truth-in-sentencing laws make incarceration terms more meaningful by ensuring that offenders actually serve most of their sentences. The adoption of truth-in-sentencing by Maryland will help restore the credibility of courts by making sentencing more uniform and ensuring that offenders actually served almost all of their original sentences.

Incapacitation and deterrence works. During the 1970s and 1980s, state officials from across the nation recognized that the rehabilitative model of corrections did not work. Correctional systems no longer focused on the ideal of rehabilitation at the expense of public safety. Rehabilitation programs were deemed ineffective.[3] Deterrence and incapacitation became the primary mission of correctional systems. Thus, federal and many state governments adopted such reforms as determinate sentencing, truth-in-sentencing, and increased sentence lengths.

The switch to determinate sentencing and increased sentence lengths prevents crime through the effects of incapacitation and deterrence. The incapacitation effect reduces crime because offenders confined in prison from the rest of society are unable to harm innocent citizens. Criminals in prison simply cannot harm society.

In addition, determinate sentencing, combined with increased sentence lengths, produces greater levels of deterrence than occurred under the rehabilitative model. Deterrence theory supposes that increasing the risk of apprehension and punishment for crime deters individuals from committing crime. Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker's seminal 1968 study of the economics of crime recognized that individuals respond to the costs and benefits of committing crime.[4] In short, incentives matter.

Over the years, several studies have demonstrated a link between increased incarceration and decreases in crime rates. After controlling for socioeconomic factors that may influence crime rates, research based on trends in multiple jurisdictions (states and counties) over several years indicates that incarceration reduces crime significantly.[5]

Maryland's Total Expenditures, FY 2007

Professor Joanna M. Shepherd of Emory University found that truth-in-sentencing laws that required violent felons to serve up to 85 percent of their sentence reduced violent crime rates.[6] These laws reduced county murder rates per 100,000 residents by 1.2 incidents. Assaults and robberies were reduced by 44.8 and 39.6 incidents per 100,000 residents, respectively. Rapes and larcenies were reduced by 4.2 and 89.5 incidents per 100,000 residents.[7]

Other studies demonstrate the crime-reducing effect of incarceration. Professor William Spelman of the University of Texas at Austin estimates that the national drop in crime during the 1990s would have been 27 to 34 percent smaller without the prison buildup.[8] In another study, Professor Spelman analyzed the impact of incarceration in Texas counties from 1990 to 2000.[9] The most significant factor responsible for the drop in crime in Texas was the state's prison expansion.

Professor Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago found that for each prisoner released from prison, there was an increase of almost 15 reported and unreported crimes per year.[10]

Two studies by Thomas B. Marvell of Justec Research in Williamsburg, Virginia, and Carlisle E. Moody of the College of William and Mary support these findings on the effects of incarceration. In a 1994 study of 49 states' incarceration rates from 1971 to 1989, Marvell and Moody found that about 17 crimes (mainly property crimes) were averted for each additional prisoner put behind bars.[11] In a study using national data from 1930 to 1994, Marvell and Moody found that a 10 percent increase in the total prison population was associated with a 13 percent decrease in homicide, after controlling for socioeconomic factors.[12]

The Cost of Corrections in Maryland

Opponents of adopting authentic truth-in-sentencing laws in Maryland may argue that the state cannot afford to implement such policies because of budget constraints. However, public safety is the primary responsibility of state government. In fiscal year (FY) 2007, corrections made up only 4.4 percent of Maryland's total expenditures (see Chart 2).[13] Comparatively, elementary and secondary education and Medicaid comprised 18.7 percent and 18.5 percent of total expenditures, respectively.[14] The amount of funds Maryland spends on corrections is little compared to other less important government activities.


Maryland faces a serious violent crime problem. Some members of society clearly need to be in prison for the safety of the rest. As long as that is the case, authorities must do what it takes to incarcerate those people who commit serious and violent crimes. Authentic truth-in-sentencing is one such policy that can make Maryland communities safer.

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Members of The Heritage Foundation staff testify as individuals discussing their own independent research. The views expressed are their own and do not reflect an institutional position for The Heritage Foundation or its board of trustees.



[1] U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports. Data obtained from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, at http://bjsdata.ojp.usdoj.gov/dataonline/Search/Crime/Crime.cfm (March 5, 2009).

[2] Peter Herman, "City Justice System Gives Victim's Family 'A Slap in the Face," The Baltimore Sun, March 4, 2009, at http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/crime/bal-md.hermann04mar04,0,2290539.column (March 9, 2009).

[3] Douglas Lipton, Robert Martinson, and Judith Wilks, The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatments and What Works: A Survey of Treatment Evaluation Studies (New York: Praeger, 1975). In recent years, reviews of the scientific literature indicate that a few correctional programs appear to reduce recidivism for at least some offenders. See Doris Layton MacKenzie, "Reducing the Criminal Activities of Known Offenders and Delinquents: Crime Prevention in the Courts and Corrections," in Lawrence W. Sherman, David P. Farrington, Brandon C. Welsh, and Doris Layton MacKenzie, eds., Evidence-Based Crime Prevention (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 330-404. However, the majority of rehabilitative programs have little to no effect on recidivism. See David Farabee, Rethinking Rehabilitation: Why Can't We Reform Our Criminals?(Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press, 2005).

[4] Gary S. Becker, "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 76, No. 2 (1968), pp. 169-217.

[5] Steven D. Levitt, "The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence from Prison Overcrowding Litigation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 1996, pp. 319-351; Thomas B. Marvell and Carlisle E. Moody, Jr., "Prison Population Growth and Crime Reduction," Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1994), pp. 109-140; Thomas B. Marvell and Carlisle E. Moody, Jr., "The Impact of Prison Growth on Homicide," Homicide Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1997), pp. 205-233; Joanna M. Shepherd, "Police, Prosecutors, Criminals, and Determinate Sentencing: The Truth About Truth-In-Sentencing Laws," Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 45 (October 2001), pp. 509-534; William Spelman, "The Limited Importance of Prison Expansion," in Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman, eds., The Crime Drop in America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 97-129; William Spelman, "Jobs or Jails? The Crime Drop in Texas,Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2005), pp. 133-165.

[6] Shepherd, "Police, Prosecutors, Criminals, and Determinate Sentencing."

[7] Ibid.

[8] Spelman, "The Limited Importance of Prison Expansion," pp. 123 and 125 (footnote 8).

[9] Spelman, "Jobs or Jails? The Crime Drop in Texas."

[10] Levitt, "The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates."

[11] Marvell and Moody, "Prison Population Growth and Crime Reduction."

[12] Marvell and Moody, "The Impact of Prison Growth on Homicide."

[13] National Association of State Budget Officers, State Expenditure Report, 2007 (Washington, D.C., 2008), Table 5, p. 10.

[14] Ibid.


David Muhlhausen
David Muhlhausen

Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis