A landmark bill advancing in the Maryland Senate would send people charged with drug possession to treatment instead of prison; lower the age at which longtime prisoners can win early release; and allow drug offenders serving mandatory-minimum terms a chance to appeal their sentences.
The legislation, which would save the state an estimated $250 million in prison costs over the next 10 years, was approved by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Friday and moved to the Senate floor.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-
Baltimore County), chairman of the committee, called the 90-page bill “a monumental piece of legislation . . . that will treat individuals smarter, use our tax dollars in a wiser way and creates more efficiency.”
Nearly a dozen states, including Kentucky and Pennsylvania, have passed similar bills in recent years as governors and legislatures struggle to cut prison costs and address long-standing complaints about racial disparities and aging prison populations.
The legislation largely follows the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a broad coalition of advocates, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers appointed last year to examine prison and sentencing policies.
The legislation would eliminate disparities in penalties for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine; make it easier for people convicted of drug possession to have those convictions expunged from their records; lower the eligibility age for geriatric parole from 65 to 60; offer drug offenders the same number of credits to reduce their sentences as are given to other nonviolent offenders; and reduce the amount of time parolees can be given for technical violations.
It does not include a repeal of mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, even though several members of the council had pushed for that change, noting that such sentencing requirements disproportionately affect minorities (in Maryland, 87 percent of those serving mandatory-minimum sentences are African American).
Instead, the committee proposed allowing inmates currently serving mandatory minimums for drug offenses to file motions to have their sentences reduced.
The bill also would require prosecutors to explain why they are seeking a mandatory-
minimum sentence, instead of that sentence being brought into play automatically.
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore), who pushed for a repeal of mandatory minimums, called the compromise a “great start. . . . It really moves all of our society in going in the right direction.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who sponsored the bill, noted that it had bipartisan support, and he singled out Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) for his work.
Also Friday, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that provides tax relief to residents at all income levels. The legislation, which involves $671 million in tax reductions over five years, aligns with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s goal of reducing the tax burden on Marylanders.
The bill would slightly lower tax rates for residents in the top four income brackets, mostly affecting individuals earning more than $100,000 and married couples earning more than $150,000. It would increase the personal income-tax exemption for middle-income taxpayers to $3,400 from $3,200 over four years and expand the earned-income tax credit for the working poor while extending that benefit to taxpayers who are younger than 25 and without children.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County), the Budget and Taxation Committee chairman, said the reduction in personal income taxes is an attempt to help improve the state’s economic climate, create more jobs and attract more businesses.
But the heads of nine liberal-leaning groups criticized the cuts for high earners, saying the money should instead be used to bolster state programs.
“This is money that could be better spent on our education system, improving highways and transit systems, or making other investments that would actually boost the state’s economy,” said a letter signed by the state teachers’ union, a union representing state employees and other organizations.
The House on Friday also passed an expansion of the earned-income tax credit.
Earlier this week, the House Ways and Means Committee green-lighted a measure that would eliminate the corporate income tax on overseas earnings that foreign governments have already taxed and a bill that would allow businesses to base their tax rates on sales in Maryland rather than a combination of sales, property and payroll in the state. Supporters of the latter bill say many corporations with headquarters in Maryland would pay lower taxes under the plan.
The Senate voted unanimously Friday to scale back the use of kindergarten assessments. The state started requiring kindergartners to take the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, a computer-based test, in 2014. Under the bill, the tests would be administered only to a sample of students in each local district. A similar bill has passed the House. The two chambers have to agree on amendments made to the bill.
The Senate also gave preliminary approval to a bill that would increase annual funding for community behavioral health providers. The measure requires an additional $17 million in fiscal year 2018, the first year the program would be in effect.