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Maryland Quietly Charts A New Direction On Criminal Justice

Christopher Connelly

Despite the partisan budget stalemate that dominated headlines as the Maryland General Assembly session came to a close last week, lawmakers in Annapolis have been slowly moving in a new direction on drug policy and drawing support from both sides of the aisle.

On a range of issues related to sentencing and penalties, the legislature continued to roll back laws governing low-level drug crimes. The legislature decriminalized pot paraphernalia, made it harder for police officers to seize property they think was bought with drug money, and curtailed mandatory minimums for low level drug offenses.

Lawmakers also moved to “clean up” parts of the law that were overlooked when they decriminalized marijuana last year. Having less than 10 grams of pot is no longer a crime, but the rolling papers and bongs still are. Also, they took on the question of what should happen to people who have a criminal record for marijuana possession, after possession was decriminalized -- records that can hold them back from getting a job or housing.

“It’s kind of a metaphysical problem: Can you carry a record around for a crime that is no longer a crime? And we said no. We want people to get back in the job market and get a clean slate,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, one of 41 out of 47 senators who voted to let folks expunge those charges.

Baltimore Delegate Curt Anderson says after two decades, we know being tough on drug crimes didn’t really work. “We didn’t have any research, we just did all these things on the hope that greater penalties would mean fewer people would do these things,” Anderson said. “Well, the opposite has happened. Back in the 1990s, we had about 12 or 13 thousand people in jail in our prisons in the state of Maryland. Today, we have twice that many.”

Bobby Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, says law enforcement should be able to focus on locking up people up who hurt people – not just those that hurt themselves through addiction. “We want to know what works, not what sounds good on a bumper sticker.”

But not everyone is happy with this shift. One lawmaker penned a letter christening this the year of the criminal. Washington County Delegate Brett Wilson says that’s a fair assessment.

“We are doing everything we can to shield people from their own actions instead of trying to benefit those who are actually comporting with the law. And that drives me crazy,” Wilson said.

Wilson is also a Washington County assistant state’s attorney. He says a lot of lawmakers don’t understand that rolling back things like mandatory minimums or asset forfeiture ties the hands of prosecutors. ”Sometimes you need a criminal sentence over someone’s head and a judge saying ‘Oh no you will go to that treatment facility’ to get them to go, and you might have the chance to break the cycle.”

But perhaps the most significant law passed this year has the least exciting title. Sponsored by Senate President Mike Miller and passed with overwhelming support, it sets up a so-called Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council. The goal: re-think of the entire criminal justice system, all the way from arrest through sentencing and the courts to corrections and re-entry after jail or prison.

“It looks at that continuum from beginning to end. It basically looks at what the key drivers of Maryland’s prison population are,” said Christopher Shank, who heads the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

At a hearing in February, Miller was joined by the state’s two top judges. Shank said the governor is fully on board, and all other stake holders will be brought into the fold. The council will partner with the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Government’s Justice Center to take a data driven look at what works and doesn’t in the state’s law and criminal justice operations.Shank said this kind of holistic approach is necessary to reverse rising prison price tags, ballooning incarceration rates and stubbornly high recidivism.

“I would much rather invest in new higher education buildings than new prison buildings. And is there a way to do that that makes sense and is financially prudent for the state to follow,” Shank said.

Ultimately, Shank said, it’s time for the state to get smart on crime, and retire the tough on crime mentality and the problems it produced.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.