Justice Reinvestment closer to final passage, but House, Senate remain apart

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By Rachel Bluth

Capital News Service

With just five days left until the end of the Maryland legislative session, the House of Delegates and state Senate have a long road of negotiations ahead on criminal justice reform.

The House of Delegates sped up final passage of the Senate’s version of the bill Wednesday, suspending the rules to vote on second and third readings of the legislation in one day, so the two bodies can quickly get to conference committee, where they can hash out differences.

However, with only days left to reach consensus, each chamber isn’t even agreeing on what the largest differences between the House and Senate versions are.

Administrative parole an issue

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, has said his biggest issue with the House’s version of the Justice Reinvestment Act, is administrative parole, which automatically releases those convicted of nonviolent crimes after serving 25 percent of their sentence if they meet certain conditions. The bill aims to save the state money by reducing the prison population.

Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said that some crimes, which are not technically classified as “violent crimes” and are therefore eligible for early release, like second-degree assault and human trafficking, should be excluded from the bill.

“It would be outrageous, in my opinion, to put violent offenders back out on the street,” Zirkin said Tuesday.

Yet Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, vice chair of Judiciary, classified administrative parole as one of the “minor differences” between the two versions. She said the question of early release shouldn’t hinge so much on the type of crime, but on whether the criminal is likely to reoffend.

“Everyone is focused on if it’s a violent criminal,” she said. “Well that person is still eligible for release, we’re not changing that. What we want to address is what’s the level of risk for recidivating.”

Mandatory minimums

Dumais has two big problems with the Senate’s version, including which crimes are eligible for expungement, and the required sentencing for some crimes.

“The big issue is that we want to repeal all mandatory minimums and they don’t,” Dumais said of the Senate.

The Senate’s version has a “safety valve” for mandatory minimums, meaning that an offender wouldn’t get one unless a judge determines they are a threat to public safety, which Zirkin said is a good compromise.

Zirkin’s problems with mandatory minimums are that they “tie the hands of judges” in the same way that administrative parole does.

“It’s a little bit inconsistent, quite frankly, and hypocritical, to be so gung ho against mandatory minimums and so gung ho for tying the hands of judges in other spheres,” Zirkin said.

Fundamental differences 

There are some fundamental philosophical differences about the Justice Reinvestment Act that could make it hard to find common ground.

The original recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, using data from the Pew Charitable Trusts, are closer to the House version. It recommended administrative parole and provided a matrix for how to sentence those who violate their probation, a measure that is in the House bill and is slightly different in the Senate bill.

Dumais wants the final legislation to match the recommendations from the Council and the data collected by Pew. Zirkin, on the other hand, has been skeptical of Pew, calling it an advocacy organization and questioning the group’s policy analysis.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which describes itself as non-governmental and non-partisan, was originally invited by the Maryland state government to help with Justice Reinvestment in 2015 by helping to draft legislation and educate members and the public about recommendations.