The ACLU focuses on the “front end” of the criminal justice system—from policing to sentencing— seeking to end criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and racial injustice. Maryland’s prison population has nearly tripled in recent years, growing from 7,731 in 1980 to 21,335 in 2013 with drug offenders making up 19 percent of the state’s prison population. This growth has been accompanied by an increasingly disproportionate racial disparity, with significant high rates of incarceration for African Americans, who now constitute 72.3 percent of committed Maryland inmates compared to only 29.4 percent of the general population of Maryland.
With support from the Abell Foundation, the ACLU is pressing Governor Hogan to review police involved deaths in Maryland and building political support for statewide police accountability reform, including changes to the Maryland Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights and police body camera regulations. The ACLU’s criminal justice efforts also facilitated the passage of legislation decriminalizing the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, making it a civil offense punishable by a fine of up to $100 for a first offense, up to $250 for a second offense, and up to $500 for subsequent offenses. Maryland joins 17 other states and the District of Columbia in decriminalizing marijuana possession. Prior to this legislation, one out of every 250 people arrested in Maryland were arrested for marijuana possession. Arrests for possession of even the smallest amounts of marijuana often resulted in loss of student aid, deportations, loss of child custody, greater difficulty in finding a job, and ineligibility for public housing.
The ACLU is also focusing on several policies that contribute to needless incarceration, such as stop-and-frisk and parole reform. Every year in Baltimore and across the state, thousands of people, particularly people of color, are subjected to stops and searches. Evidence shows that not only do such tactics destroy relationships between police and people of color, but they are also ineffective at ferreting out and solving actual crimes. Maryland is one of only three states where the governor must approve parole for people serving a life sentence. For all practical purposes, sentences of life with the possibility of parole have become synonymous with death in prison because governors have opted not to grant parole except in rare cases. The ACLU completed a report, Still Blocking the Exit, on the 269 people in Maryland serving parole-eligible life sentences that were sentenced as juveniles and continues to work on eliminating the governor from the parole decision making process to bring about a more fair and less politicized process.