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Maryland: Increased Incarceration Had Limited Effect on Reducing Crime for Over Two Decades

Report Supports Reforms to Reduce Maryland’s Prison Population – and Proves This Can Be Achieved Without Added Crime.

February 12, 2015

Since 1990, increased incarceration had a limited impact on reducing crime nationwide, concludes a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. In What Caused the Crime Decline?, a team of economic and criminal justice researchers examine over 40 years of data, gathered from 50 states and the 50 largest cities.

The report takes a close look at Maryland, where the prison population has tripled since 1980. The state ranks seventh in terms of amount spent per capita on the justice system and spent $1.313 billion on state corrections in 2013. Maryland spends more than 10 times as much on corrections as it does on education. Its prisons nearly reached their full capacity by 2010, though the prison population decreased slightly over the last few years. As of 2013, Maryland imprisons 360 people per 100,000, compared to 498 for the U.S.

The Center will host a briefing call today at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the report’s findings. Dial In information: 1–800–514–0831; Confirmation Number: 38955210

Nationwide and Maryland-specific findings are summarized below.

  • Crime: Crime across the United States has steadily declined over the last two decades. At the same time, from its height in 1980 to 2013, crime in Maryland dropped by 53 percent. And the national crime rate was cut in half.
  • Incarceration: Increased incarceration has been declining in its effectiveness as a crime control tactic for more than 30 years. It had some effect, likely in the range of 0 to 10 percent, on reducing crime in the 1990s. Since 2000, however, increased incarceration had a negligible effect on crime. The effectiveness of increased incarceration in Maryland dropped suddenly in the early 1980s, and then seemed to plateau until about 1988. During this time, the prison population nearly doubled, landing a little above 14,000. After that, the effectiveness of incarceration fell further until it reached essentially zero around 1995. By then, the number of prisoners had risen to 21,453. A number of states, including California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, have successfully reduced their prison populations while crime continues to fall.
  • Other Factors: Increased numbers of police officers, some data-driven policing techniques, changes in income, decreased alcohol consumption, and an aging population played a role in the crime decline. In particular, the report finds CompStat is associated with a 5 to 15 percent decrease in crime. In Maryland, CompStat was introduced in Baltimore in 2000. The report also includes new information on the effects of unemployment, the death penalty, and other theories on crime.

“Some have argued that despite the immense social and fiscal costs of America’s mass incarceration system, it has succeeded at reducing crime,” said report co-author Oliver Roeder. “But the data tells a different story: if reducing crime is the end goal of our criminal justice system, increased incarceration is a poor investment.”

 “This report amplifies what many on the left and right have come to realize in recent years: mass incarceration isn’t working,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “A better use of resources would be improving economic opportunities, supporting 21st century policing practices, and expanding treatment and rehabilitation programs, all of which have proven records of reducing crime, without incarceration’s high costs.”

“This groundbreaking empirical analysis from the Brennan Center shows that, on examination, the easy answers do not explain incarceration’s effect on crime,” wrote Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University, in the Foreword. “This report presents a rigorous and sophisticated empirical analysis performed on the most recent, comprehensive dataset to date.”

“Reform efforts in Maryland have been slow,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, co-author of the report. “There have been attempts to shorten parole lengths and legislation decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Two bills are currently pending in Maryland that would reduce the state’s prison population. One would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. The other would increase parole eligibility for those serving life sentences. These bills would reduce the state’s prison population and the findings in our report prove that such reductions can be achieved without added crime.”

Click here to read the full report, What Caused the Crime Decline?

Read about the crime decline in California, Illinois, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.

Click here to read more about the Brennan Center’s work to improve the criminal justice system.

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Naren Daniel at (646) 292–8381 or