Fixing ‘the mess’ in Maryland’s prisons

Daily Record, Friday Mar 27, 2015, p23A
Commentary by Phil Caroom

A new wave of bipartisan cooperation in criminal justice

When the bipartisan “tough-on-crime” tidal wave rose from 1980 to 2000, Maryland and other U.S. states more than tripled their prison populations — and taxpayer costs. Former governor and state delegate Bob Ehrlich says, “I remember sitting in the Maryland state legislature … debating what predicate offenses we would add. … Here we are, a few years later, with this mess.”

But our incarceration surge only marginally reduced crime. And Maryland recidivism (repeat offenders returning to prison with new offenses within three years) remains stubbornly high — between 40 and 50 percent. Sister states, Virginia, Oregon and others, updated policies and dropped their rates to the 20 percent range. Because 95 percent of all prison inmates return to their communities, such recidivism rates are crucial to public safety.

This year, the General Assembly finally has begun plans to reverse the mass incarceration tide and to cut recidivism: Passed last week with overwhelming support in both houses, the Justice Reinvestment (JR) Coordinating Council Act convenes a study “using a data-driven approach, [to] develop a statewide policy framework of sentencing and corrections policies to … reduce the state’s incarcerated population, reduce spending on corrections, and reinvest [funds saved] in strategies to increase public safety and reduce recidivism.”

Sea change

What brought this sea change? Advocates point to many factors: The new governor, Larry Hogan, asked for bipartisan initiatives both to cut the state budget and to make government work better. Senate President Mike Miller accepted this invitation and recruited dozens of cosponsors for the JR bill, including House Judiciary Committee chair Joe Vallario and vice-chair Kathleen Dumais. Republican Senators Chris Shank — later appointed by Hogan to direct the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention — and Michael Hough helped recruit Republican support. Grass roots organizations — Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MAJR) and many partner groups — supported the push, bringing Republican cosponsors. And Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera broke the Judiciary’s normal policy of neutrality to pledge “full support.”

The JR coordinating council will hold public hearings around the state, collecting input from the public and an “advisory stakeholders group” — victims, mediators, and minority advocates — before a December 2015 report.

Three other 2015 criminal justice reforms, concerning ex-offenders’ employment (championed by the Job Opportunity Task Force) and parole (championed by Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, also appear on the brink of passage:

— The Maryland Second Chance Act of 2015 (SB 526/HB 244) would allow courts to shield certain common nonviolent misdemeanor convictions from public view after a three-year waiting period. SB 526 has successfully passed the Senate, has crossed over to the House, and is scheduled with HB 244 for a sponsor-only hearing on Wednesday at 1p.m. in the House Judiciary Committee.

— Two other bills would aid employment seekers to expunge certain criminal records. HB 904 unanimously passed the House, removing any fee for expungment of charges which have been nol prossed, stetted or otherwise dismissed. On Thursday, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee was expected to be invited to go one better and to eliminate the need for petitions for such expungements.

Currently, prospective employers may be misled as the online Maryland Judiciary Case Search continues to display such criminal charges, even though they have been dismissed.

SB 652, passed by the Senate 45-1, would allow expungements even if a person had a subsequent conviction for possession of marijuana — now, no longer a crime. Advocates will seek its passage in the House, which adopted a more restrictive bill.

— Two competing bills also invite legislators to consider fundamental reform for offenders at the far end of the spectrum—those serving life sentences:

SB 111/HB 303 would remove the governor’s veto over parole of life inmates in response to families’ and advocates’ complaints that no governor in the past 20 years has had the courage to permit such paroles.

Governor Parris Glendening’s “life means life” pledge, they suggest, has obliterated the statutory distinction between paroleable life and life-without-parole sentences.

In 47 of 50 U.S. states, governors have been removed from parole to immunize them from “Willie Horton” anxiety and depoliticize the process. But neither SB 111 nor HB 303 have been passed even on the committee level thus far in 2015.

SB 603, a budget-cutting version of parole reform, may fare better, cosponsored by 31 of 47 state senators. With this bill, parole would screen any inmate 64 or older who has served 10 years or one third of his or her term, if he or she “is incapacitated with a permanent medical or mental health condition, including dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, that renders the inmate unable to perform basic daily living activities and requires continual medical care at the expense of the state.” After a hearing to consider public safety and victim concerns, parole could be granted, without the governor’s involvement.

This “ill-and-older” parole measure, despite a misleading Fiscal Note, promises savings of millions in high in-house medical costs, permitting the funds’ redirection toward rehabilitation of younger, higher risk inmates.

Phil Caroom, although an Anne Arundel circuit judge, here offers a personal opinion as a nonlegal advisor to Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform and not as a Judiciary representative.

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