Criminal Justice Getting an Overhaul in Maryland
By Michael Dresser
Gov. Larry Hogan signed legislation Thursday aimed at reducing the state prison population by more than 1,000 inmates while plowing millions of dollars into crime prevention.
The state's broadest criminal justice legislation in decades will reduce sentencing guidelines for drug dealers, thieves and other offenders, while increasing fivefold the number of crimes that can be wiped from an offender's record.
Users of illegal drugs will be steered toward treatment, not incarceration. And new rules will help the state go after criminal gangs.
The Justice Reinvestment Act, a document of more than 100 pages, represents a seismic shift from policies adopted during the late-20th-century war on drugs, which critics say led to governments wasting money on incarceration that did little to increase public safety.
By reducing the Maryland prison population by about 1,100 over the next 10 years, officials expect to save an estimated $80 million that can be redirected to programs intended to prevent crime.
The measure, one of 144 that Hogan signed into law Thursday, was a compromise reached among Republicans and Democrats, prosecutors and defenders, civil libertarians and victims' rights advocates. Hogan said it "represents the largest and most comprehensive criminal justice reform to pass in Maryland in a generation."
But some officials and advocates say the legislation should begin an evaluation process.
Some say that doing away with mandatory minimum sentences was a mistake, as was reducing sentences for some drug offenses. Others bemoan the increased penalty for second-degree murder and say not enough other penalties have been reduced.
Most of the provisions will go into effect in October 2017; some go into effect this October.
Toni Holness, public policy counsel for the Maryland ACLU, said there are flaws in the measure, but overall, it "does move the needle forward."
"What is more promising to me than the substance of the bill is the cultural shift we are witnessing in our General Assembly away from failed draconian criminal penalties that have not made us safer," she said.
Supporters say the legislation helps only nonviolent offenders.
Del. Herbert H. McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, disagrees.
"Pushing heroin and other opioids isn't nonviolent," McMillan told the House during debate last month. "Reducing jail time for heroin pushers, during an opioid epidemic, does not send the message heroin pushers need to hear."
Maryland is the 30th state to pursue justice reinvestment, a concept pushed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Del. Kathleen Dumais, both Democrats. In 2015, the two sponsored legislation that created a council to recommend sweeping changes to lawmakers.
From those recommendations, the state Senate and the House of Delegates crafted significantly different bills. The Senate version was friendlier toward prosecutors. It took a marathon negotiation session two days before the end of the session to reconcile the bills. The House backed off some of its proposed sentence reductions. The Senate agreed, reluctantly, to the repeal of mandatory minimums.
Christopher B. Shank, the Hogan administration official who led the effort to craft the bill, said the new criminal justice policies are "a smarter use of the taxpayers' money."
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, who as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee led his chamber's work on the legislation, called its passage one of the best moments of his 18 years in the legislature.
"There's never been a bill that I can recall of that magnitude, and it was a completely bipartisan, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to work effort," the Baltimore County Democrat said. He pointed to his close collaboration with Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican.
Zirkin said one of the most important provisions specifies that treatment, rather than incarceration, should be the sentence for a person convicted of possessing drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
"That's a more effective way to get that individual out of the criminal realm and back to being a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen," Zirkin said.
Zirkin said the bill includes "the single largest expansion of expungement possibly in this state's history."
He said it expands the list of offenses that may be erased from public records from nine to about 50. They include misdemeanors related to theft and drug possession. The change is intended to make it easier for former offenders to qualify for jobs, housing and education.
For Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, repealing mandatory minimum sentences was critical. "At least the judges have discretion," she said.
But Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, said the measure is both a step forward and a disappointment. He said lawmakers diluted the already thoroughly debated recommendations of the council, producing a bill that was a compromise of a compromise.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who represented the state's prosecutors through the process, said he had to swallow hard to accept reductions to mandatory minimum sentences. He said such minimums are an effective tool in striking plea bargains.
Still, Shellenberger said, the legislation moves in the right direction. He said prosecutors have sought the increase in the maximum sentence for second-degree murder to 40 years for years. And he said he is pleased that lawmakers included Hogan's proposal to adopt a state version of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations bill to go after criminal gangs.
Paul DeWolfe, Maryland's chief public defender, served on the council that made recommendations. He said he hopes lawmakers continue to build on the reinvestment process in the coming years.
An oversight commission created by the bill will make recommendations for further reforms.
"I do see this as a first step, and I hope that most members of the commission and the legislature think that way as well," he said.
Shellenberger, a Democrat known for his tough approach to crime, said he hopes the oversight panel will take it slowly and let the state absorb the many changes in the bill over several years.
"This is such a large change to the criminal justice system that I think we need to take a break and see what savings [result] and what happens as a result of this change," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.
Other bills signed
The Justice Reinvestment Act was among 144 bills Gov. Larry Hogan signed Thursday. Other new laws include:
Ignition interlocks: Most convicted drunken drivers will be required to have locks put on their cars that prevent them from driving unless they pass a breathalyzer test. The measure was called Noah's Law in honor of Noah Leotta, a Montgomery County police officer who was hit and killed in December by a drunken driver during a traffic stop.
Heroes Highway: A portion of Route 924 in Harford County will be renamed Heroes Highway in honor of two sheriff's deputies shot and killed in the line of duty in and near a Bel Air restaurant in February.
Equal pay: In an effort to address some of the underlying causes of the pay gap between men and women, a new law will protect workers who disclose or ask for information about pay disparities in the workplace.
Police accountability: Crafted after Freddie Gray died of spinal injuries suffered in Baltimore police custody, a new law creates statewide standards for police training and discipline, including allowing civilians to participate on police trial boards.
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