Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) rattled off numbers for the mostly white, mostly older crowd of Maryland Republicans, explaining how blacks are arrested for marijuana offenses in Baltimore at a higher rate than whites.
“If you do surveys, the statistics are pretty close between black and white marijuana use,” the Republican presidential hopeful said at a state party fundraiser last week. “I’m not saying it’s racism. Many of the officials [in Baltimore] are black. So it’s not racism. But something is wrong with the war on drugs when we decide to lock people up for five, 10, 15 years for making mistakes.”
The crowd broke into applause.
As the crime rate falls and the number of high-profile cases in which police officers are accused of racial bias escalates, Republicans increasingly are joining what had long been a Democratic conversation: how to reduce the size of the prison population and help ex-offenders turn their lives around.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan this year became the latest Republican state leader to back bills intended to reduce recidivism and help ex-offenders find jobs. And while Hogan also vetoed a bill that would have expanded felon voting rights, advocates say he and other Republicans have shown a willingness to rethink long-held theories about how to reduce crime.
“There’s a change in climate in criminal justice reform,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group that has worked to change the way Americans view crime and punishment.
The shift by Republicans is largely motivated by costs, Democrats say. Fiscally conservative Republicans see prison expenses as a drain on strained budgets and are starting to work with Democrats to find less costly approaches.
The declining crime rate, Mauer said, has made the debate “less emotional and less political” for lawmakers.
In Alabama, where prison crowding was so severe that the federal government threatened to intervene, Gov. Robert Bentley (R) approved a measure that reduces penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes.
Hogan signed a bill to create the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, which will search for ways to reduce spending on corrections. The council will be led by Christopher B. Shank, a former Republican state senator who directs the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
“Taking a tough stance on crime isn’t just about incarceration,” Hogan said in a statement offering his support for the bill during the legislative session. He said Maryland needed to “strike a balance and explore better, smarter options” to locking people up.
Hogan also signed a bill that allows ex-offenders to shield court and police records on certain offenses, to make it easier for them to obtain employment.
The governor allowed two bills that change sentencing guidelines to be enacted without his signature. One repeals mandatory-minimum sentencing for some offenses and gives judges greater discretion over meting out punishment. The other allows offenders to expunge certain crimes from their records.
But Hogan vetoed two criminal justice bills. One would have permitted ex-offenders to vote while on parole or probation; the other would have decriminalized drug paraphernalia such as bongs and pipes.
Mauer said the voting-rights veto showed a disconnect in Hogan’s thinking about the links among criminal justice policy, racial and economic inequality, and the plight of urban communities. “It is disappointing,” Mauer said. “Especially to do it at this moment, with all the developments in Baltimore. It’s not a very constructive message to send to people.”
Matt Clark, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor believes that former inmates “are not ex-felons until they are finished with parole and probation.”
Democratic Party leaders say the veto came as a surprise because the bill received bipartisan support in the legislature and because Hogan did not oppose it while it was being considered.
As Hogan, Paul and other Republicans have spoken out about criminal justice reform and the needs of poor communities in Baltimore, Democratic Party leaders have accused them of political gamesmanship.
“At the end of the day, this is the party that opposes the Affordable Care Act, opposes Head Start, food stamps and any program that exists to better people who are in a bad place,” said Chuck Cook, political director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
But Republican leaders say they want to hear the concerns of Baltimore residents and offer their assistance — on criminal justice reform and more.
“There is no doubt that we need change,” said Nicolee Ambrose, a Maryland delegate to the Republican National Committee. “Our job as a society, not as a political party, is to allow people to lift themselves up, and if there is something holding them back, we need to help change that.”
In Baltimore County last week, Paul told attendees at the Republican Party dinner that Democrats have “utterly failed” inner cities. He did not repeat previous comments blaming the riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray on a “lack of fathers” in poor neighborhoods.
The state Republican Party also sponsored a March appearance by Paul at historically black Bowie State University; there, too, he spoke forcefully about the need to overhaul the justice system.
State party leaders have visited the Baltimore neighborhoods where the unrest occurred and co-organized a panel discussion with the Baltimore NAACP that focused on improving the city’s criminal justice system. Hogan this week celebrated the opening of a community center in West Baltimore.
Meanwhile, Maryland legislators from both parties said they are working together on sentencing and other issues.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he sees a generational rather than a partisan shift, with lawmakers moving away from an “old” way of thinking about punishment for nonviolent crimes.
When the mandatory-minimum sentencing bill came to the Senate committee, Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) took the lead, offering an amendment based on language from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council that would give judges discretion on sentencing under certain circumstances.
Hough said a House version of the bill stood a slim chance of passage in the Senate and even less chance of approval by Hogan. By adding the amendment, he opted for what he considered to be a more “moderate approach.”
“Society has served an injustice when someone is given an unjust penalty, whether it is too light or too heavy,” Hough said.
The final mandatory-minimum bill was similar, Hough said, to one introduced in Congress by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), whom he called “two of the most liberal and two of the most conservative” members of their chamber.
He said the parallel with the bill Lee and Cruz co-introduced helped in his defense of the Maryland measure — as did the fact that he, a fiscal conservative, was standing behind it, saying, “This bill is okay.”