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Hogan prepares to sign off on overhaul of Maryland criminal justice system

This piece originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.


Maryland officials are about to take steps to reduce the state prison population by more than 1,000 inmates while plowing millions of dollars into crime prevention.

Gov. Larry Hogan plans Thursday to sign the state's broadest criminal justice legislation in decades — a package that will reduce sentencing guidelines for drug dealers, thieves and other offenders, while increasing the number of crimes that can be wiped from an offender's record fivefold.

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, is 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 people over the next 10 years, officials expect to save an estimated $80 million that can be redirected toward programs intended to prevent crime.

The bill was a compromise reached among Republicans andDemocrats, prosecutors and defenders, civil libertarians and victims' rights advocates.

"This is a generational piece of criminal justice reform," saidChristopher B. Shank, the Hogan administration official who led the effort to craft the bill.

But some officials and advocates say Hogan's approval, to come as he signs more than 200 bills in the final such ceremony this year, should begin an evaluation process.

Some say 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 bill's provisions go into effect in October 2017. Some will become law this October.

Toni Holness, public policy counsel for the Maryland ACLU, said there are flaws in a bill that overall "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 Assemblyaway from failed draconian criminal penalties that have not made us safer," she said.

Supporters say the legislation helps only nonviolent offenders.

Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, disagrees.

"Pushing heroin and other opioids isn't nonviolent," McMillan told the House during debate last monh. "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 Millerand Del. Kathleen Dumais, both Democrats. pushed after learning about it at legislative conferences. In 2015, the two sponsored successful legislation that created a council to recommend sweeping changes to lawmakers.

From those recommendations, the Senate and House of Delegates crafted significantly different bills.

The Senate's 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.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, who as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee led that 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 also 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 ex-offenders to qualify for jobs, housing and education.

For Dumais, the Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, repealing mandatory minimum sentences was critical.

"At least the judges have discretion," Dumais said.

Others were less effusive.

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 were 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's pleased that lawmakers included Hogan's proposal to adopt a state version of the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) 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 slow 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.

Main provisions of criminal justice bill

These are some of the key items in the Justice Reinvestment Act to be signed by Gov. Larry Hogan Thursday.

Sentencing

•Reduces the maximum penalties for convictions on drug distribution charges.

•Repeals mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

•Eliminates jail time for driving on a suspended license.

•Increases the maximum penalty for second-degree murder from 30 to 40 years.

•Raises value of stolen items that makes theft a felony.

Drug treatment

•Authorizes judge to order an assessment of a defendant for a substance abuse disorder.

•Requires state to provide drug treatment to an offender within 21 days of when a judge orders it.

Gangs

•Creates a state version of federal Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute.

Parole and probation

•Establishes graduated sanctions short of re-imprisonment for parole and probation violators.

•Provides rehabilitation certificate when inmate completes supervision, to make it easier to get a job.

•Allows geriatric and medical parole at earlier ages, except for sex offenders.

Prison and release

•Reduces time low-level offenders must wait for Parole Board to free them.

•Increases credits an inmate can earn toward release by completing educational programs.

Victims' rights

•Requires that 25 percent of prison earnings be dedicated for restitution payment.

•Revamps state system to make sure restitution orders can be enforced.


This piece originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.
You can follow Michael on twitter at @michaeltdresser and Marc at @marc4justice.

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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