By Bryan Renbaum
The Maryland Senate unanimously passed one of the most sweeping criminal justice reform bills in decades on Thursday after contentious debate over several amendments.
The bill, SB1005, more commonly known as the Justice Reinvestment Act, would offer non-violent offenders, such as drug users, treatment and the possibility of post-conviction expungement (cleaning the record), while incarceration would still be emphasized for violent offenders.
It would also reduce mandatory sentencing for drug possession crimes, raise the threshold for felony theft charges, eliminate or reduce jail time for those driving on a suspended license, and call for better parole practices and addiction treatment services.
Dramatic move but not perfect
Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore City, who has worked on reforming the criminal justice system for more than two decades, echoed sentiments shared by many of his colleagues saying although the bill is not perfect, it’s passage is not only historic, but represents an equitable bipartisan compromise. The committee made some changes to the reforms to keep harsher terms for violent offenders.
“This is a dramatic move forward,” McFadden said. “Is it a perfect move? Nothing is perfect. Does everyone agree? Absolutely not! And when I came into this body, the old sages would say, if the left is unhappy and the right is unhappy, you’re probably doing something right, because you’re moving in the direction that makes our state better,”
If the bill becomes law, it would have a broad impact on judicial spending across state and local agencies. Over time, the Department of Legislative Services estimate that the savings will increase over the costs, so the state will be saving a net $17.5 million by fiscal 2021.
The bill calls for the state to pass on some savings to the counties in performance grants since local incarceration spending may also increase as municipalities are forced to absorb inmates normally housed by the state.
Worries about violent offenders
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the committee amended the bill so that reforms of violations of probation and administrative parole weren’t too lenient.
He said as proposed the bill set caps on the amount of jail time given to offenders who violated parole “no matter what” — 15 days for the first offense, 30 days for the second, 45 days for the third offense.
“What you were not told and what was in the original bill, is that this provision applied not just to non-violent offenders, this provision applied to murderers, rapists, sex offenders, domestic violence, sex traffickers, and everybody else, no exceptions,” Zirkin said. “So what the Judicial Proceedings Committee said was in the cases where somebody is at risk, where there is a risk to public safety, where a victim or a witness is in danger, the judge could move off of the matrix, that’s all that amendment did.”
Zirkin described administrative parole as “automatic parole.” In one example, if an offender with a 10-year sentence did all the things in the bill to get parole, the offender would be out in just 2.5 years automatically without going before a parole commission.
Describing problems with the administrative parole provision Zirkin said, “Let me tell you who was also included in that provision before JPR got it — human traffickers, abduction of a child under 16 for the purposes of a sex crime, involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence, killing somebody while you’re driving under the influence, second degree assault, including domestic violence, solicitation to commit murder or rape, conspiracy to commit murder or rape, felony animal cruelty.”
“A lot of very violent crimes were left out of this bill, which is the two amendments that the Baltimore Sun referenced, we decided in JPR that we wanted to make sure that for the violent criminals, for the dangerous criminals, that judges would have some discretion, I think it would be insane not to give them discretion for these violent criminals,” Zirkin said.
Kelley challenges Zirkin’s assertions
Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, applauded the Judicial Proceedings Committee for their hard work on crafting the original bill, but suggested Zirkin’s characterization of the original bill as benefitting violent criminals was not accurate.
Kelley said that he pointed out more extreme examples, but most probation violations are more minor offenses such as missing a meeting with a parole officer or failing to have a job.
“So we can take unusual and extreme cases and try to make them the norm, but they are not the norm,” she said.
Kelley also said that judges already have adequate leeway to punish those who violate probation or parole.
“Nobody in here wants violent people on the street, but the judge is going to consider violence because that’s one of the aggravating factors when he sentences initially.”
Treatment for non-violent offenders
Sen. Michael Hough R-Frederick, a member of Judicial Proceedings, said his personal experience growing up with an alcoholic father partly motivated him to support the bill’s treatment provisions for those who suffer from substance abuse.
“Ultimately, what this bill does is it makes a huge change as far as how we treat people with addiction, it says instead of incarceration, we’re gonna send them to treatment and that in itself is a huge fundamental change,” Hough said.
Hough said the committee carefully considered the impact disparities in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders have for those who live in poorer neighborhoods and also said that for the first time this legislation offers the possibility of expungement for certain offenses.
Sen. Jim Brochin D-Baltimore County, expressed reservations about expungement provisions in the bill for certain offenses such as theft, and said he was previously skeptical when former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke advocated treatment as opposed to incarceration for those who are addicted to drugs, but now supports the idea.
Said Brochin “People came down on him really hard, and I actually at the time thought he was wrong also and I came down hard on him as well, and I was wrong, and I stand here saying I was wrong and now 20 years later I have to opportunity to make that right and to do something that we should have done long time ago, which is to treat addiction as a medical issue and in this bill the presumption now is that you go to treatment.”