Bill Could Shorten Some Drug Dealers' Prison Time

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley said he is considering whether to sign a bill that would put Maryland among the states seeking to reverse a long trend toward more severe punishment for some drug crimes.

The General Assembly approved a measure last month that would make twice-convicted drug dealers eligible for parole, meaning a 10-year sentence could be shortened to 2 1/2 years for a nonviolent offender. About two dozen other states are rewriting laws that mandate fixed prison terms as they confront a crushing volume of low-level criminals clogging state prisons.

Twenty-five years ago, Maryland joined a national movement to stem the rising drug trade, requiring sentences of 10 to 40 years for drug dealers. But locking up the hard-to-reform offenders with fixed sentences did little to prevent their re-arrest and even less to address the addiction that led to their crimes.

O'Malley (D) said last week that he is reviewing the bill and is "very much in favor of drug treatment." But he faces a conflict between his liberal sensibilities and his experience as a two-term mayor of Baltimore, where he saw daily homicides committed by drug addicts. "Anyone who doubts that drug distribution is a violent crime need only look at the morgues of this state," he said.

The Legislative Black Caucus, concerned that African Americans make up a majority of defendants jailed on drug charges, made House Bill 992 a top priority this year, but it was still among the most divisive of the just-concluded legislative session.

A veto would be O'Malley's first after a session in which he joined arms with the Democrat-controlled General Assembly on issues including the environment and a living wage, signing hundreds of bills.

The measure reflects a bipartisan shift in the politics of crime in Maryland, where corrections officials estimate that drugs played a role in the offenses of 70 percent of 22,692 state inmates.

Like many states, Maryland began enacting tougher drug sentences in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to the rise in crack-related violence and such high-profile tragedies as the death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias of an overdose of cocaine in 1986.

Advocates for repealing fixed terms say locking up nonviolent offenders instead of treating them is ineffective, forbids judges from addressing individual cases and, in the case of second-time offenders, unfairly punishes low-level dealers who get the same 10 years in jail regardless of the quantity of drugs they are caught with.

This year's legislation follows a 2004 law signed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) that encouraged judges to divert nonviolent offenders from jail into drug treatment. But judges have complained that state funding hasn't kept pace with demand for beds.

"All of those at the table have learned that you can take a drug user, lock him up and keep him clean and sober for the time he's locked up," said Gary G. Everngam, a District Court judge in Montgomery County. "But when you let him out, he's still a drug user."

This year's bill took a roller coaster ride, failing on the House floor by one vote after a dramatic debate about crime, punishment and redemption -- then squeaking by in the final days by five votes after its sponsor, Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), revived it. Anderson, a Baltimore defense lawyer who is black, argued that most second-time offenders are nonviolent addicts who sell drugs to support their habits.

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