BALTIMORE — Maryland has the highest incarceration rate for African Americans in the nation, according to a recent report.

Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst for The Sentencing Project and author of the study, pointed out Maryland has a Black population of almost 30%, yet African Americans make up 71% of its prison population.

She attributes the disparity to criminal-justice policies such as excessive sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and noted the state also suffers from what she calls a robust school-to-prison pipeline.

“A lot of students in schools in Maryland come into the criminal justice system through that pipeline of breaking school rules and then becoming involved in the criminal legal system shortly thereafter,” Nellis explained.

Nellis added just last year, Maryland began a pilot program using racial impact statements when considering criminal-justice legislation. It forces lawmakers to consider potential laws in terms of the effect they will have on communities of color, which she thinks will help ease some of the current disparities.

Nellis noted other recommendations to reduce racial gaps in prison include ending mandatory minimum sentencing, which she argued is ineffective at reducing crime. She also suggested decriminalizing low-level drug offenses she contended are more reflective of police activity than criminal acts.

“We know that Blacks are overpoliced,” Nellis asserted. “This sort of levels the playing field for people coming into the criminal legal system later on down the road and face tougher sentences because of those early encounters with police.”

The report also called for ending mandatory minimum sentencing. Nationally, the study found African Americans are incarcerated at almost five times the rate of white Americans. In Maryland, the rate is five to three.

Diane Bernard is a digital and radio journalist based in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area with more than 10 years of journalism experience. Her print and online credits include work for The Washington...

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