Governor May Veto Bill Lessening Drug Penalties
Friday, May 11, 2007
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said yesterday that he will probably veto a bill that would make twice-convicted drug dealers eligible for parole, calling drug dealing a "violent crime" that should be severely punished.
"I'm not sure that I can sign a bill that would do away with the penalties we have in Maryland -- or lessen the penalties -- for second-time drug dealers," the governor said on "The Bill Press Show" on Sirius satellite radio. "I think drug dealing is a violent crime."
House Bill 992, narrowly approved by the General Assembly last month, would put Maryland among two dozen states turning back a 25-year national trend toward mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. Nonviolent offenders who now serve fixed 10-year sentences for drug distribution could be released after 2 1/2 years.
Advocates for repealing fixed prison terms say that locking up some of these defendants for 10 years with no chance of parole punishes many low-level dealers who get the same time as more serious dealers caught with larger quantities of drugs. Many of them are dealing to support their habit, and the bill's original language included money for drug treatment. But it passed with none in a tight budget year, prompting opponents to say they could not support it.
The bill is likely to be the only major bill that O'Malley vetoes out of this year's legislative session, which ended April 9. And a veto would put him at odds with some of the party's liberal activists.
The legislation is a top priority of the Legislative Black Caucus, whose members are concerned that African Americans make up the majority of defendants jailed in Maryland on drug charges. But O'Malley, who is popular among African Americans, said his two terms as mayor of Baltimore made him sensitive to drug-related violence.
"When I was elected mayor of Baltimore, it was a time when our city was the most violent in America," O'Malley he told Press, a liberal commentator. "We need to do more drug treatment. But I'm not inclined to sign the bill."
Black leaders, including the measure's sponsor, Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), a defense attorney, are lobbying O'Malley heavily to sign the bill.
Public defenders, who support the bill, said they were disappointed.
"I don't think mandatory laws are serving any real purpose," said Janet Callous, who has represented numerous clients in Prince George's County serving 10-year terms. "If we are talking about people who are shown to be kingpins, it makes more sense. But a lot of people are selling small amounts of cocaine because they're users themselves."