The Maryland General Assembly approved sweeping changes in criminal sentencing policies and adopted broad new police training and accountability procedures Monday, the final day of the state’s annual legislative session.
Lawmakers hailed both bills as major reforms that would significantly alter how criminals are punished and how the public interacts with police.
“It’s a meaningful step,” Larry Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland, said of the police bill, which passed the House and then the Senate with about an hour left until the end of the annual legislative session. “There will have to be more steps in the future.”
Advocates were disappointed that the bill does not give civilian review boards independent investigative powers. But Stafford said he was pleased with other areas of the bill, including an investment in community policing and tax credits for police officers who live in the communities where they work.
Noah’s Law, a widely watched drunken-driving bill involving ignition locks, also received final passage, after languishing for years in the House Judicial Proceedings Committee. But a tax-relief bill championed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) failed to advance, as did a bill — pushed by progressive groups — that would have required employers to provide paid sick leave.
Hogan expressed strong support for both Noah’s Law and the criminal-justice bill known as the Justice Reinvestment Act.
The sentencing legislation would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, increase penalties for some violent crimes and allow some nonviolent offenders to be released from prison earlier. It also would lower the age at which older inmates can receive geriatric parole and would limit the ability of judges to impose long sentences for probation violations.
The bill, which passed the House and Senate by wide margins, is similar to bills enacted in about two dozen other states in recent years, embraced by both Democrats and Republicans as a way to reduce prison populations and costs and also address long-standing sentencing disparities and injustices.
“It’s a great bill,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), an early proponent in Maryland of sentencing reform.
Del. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) said the legislation would bring about a “new norm” in criminal justice by focusing on dependency treatment, drug counseling, education and job training instead of incarceration. “I believe this bill will be regarded as that single piece of legislation passed in 2016 with the most far-reaching consequences,” West said. “It is a genuinely bipartisan bill.”
Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County), who voted against the legislation, said he was concerned about a lack of treatment slots for those who would be directed to rehabilitation under the measure. He also questioned whether the bill would truly improve public safety. “If this bill is flawed, we are going to pay in bloodshed,” he said. “We’re talking about putting more people in a safety net that doesn’t exist.”
Toni Holness, public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maryland, applauded lawmakers for recognizing that “being tough on crime has not given us a return on our investment.” But she took issue with stiffer penalties for violent crimes that were added to the bill in exchange for doing away with mandatory minimum sentences. Such penalties, she said, run counter to the intention of the bill — to reduce the prison population.
The police reform bill passed the Senate 45 to 1 and the House 90 to 49. The bill makes broad changes in how officers are hired, trained and disciplined, and allows people to make complaints about police officers anonymously. It is based on recommendations from a legislative work group created last year after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
The House and Senate had split in recent days over whether the bill should require localities to place civilians on police review boards. The final version of the legislation leaves that up to individual jurisdictions.
A controversial bill to provide a $37.5 million tax credit to Northrup Grumman passed its final legislative hurdle Monday with a 74 to 59 vote in the House.
But the bill to expand the earned income tax credit for the working poor and provide other modest tax relief failed, in part because the House and Senate could not agree on whether to include tax breaks for higher earners.
Both chambers had previously passed tax-relief packages that would lower the burden on middle-income taxpayers while expanding a credit for the working poor, including by extending the benefit to people without children. However, the House last week rejected a Senate provision that would reduce rates on high earners.
“We just couldn’t reach an agreement,” Miller said. “They didn’t like our high brackets. In other words, we took care of everybody in the state, top to the bottom . . . and the House chose to just cut the income tax for the middle and lower brackets.”
Hogan — who campaigned on a platform of reversing tax hikes and reducing fees — said he was disappointed that the tax relief package that passed the Senate failed to make it out of the General Assembly.
“This morning all of you and all of us thought we were this close to real meaningful tax relief and unfortunately the Speaker of the House and Senate President dropped the ball and failed to get it done,” he said at an early morning news conference after the legislature adjourned. “It’s very frustrating and disappointing.”
Despite a spurt of momentum early on Monday, lawmakers also did not pass a paid-sick-leave bill that would have made Maryland just the fifth state in the country to require paid time off for employees who are ill. Some lawmakers reportedly floated the idea of tying the sick leave bill to the tax relief package, in hope of generating enough support to pass both. But no formal effort ever materialized.
At Hogan’s news conference, a radio reporter told the governor that Miller had said Hogan would have vetoed a bill that tied tax cuts to the paid sick leave bill. Hogan dismissed the idea.
“Mike Miller doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” the governor said. “It sounds like they just couldn’t get along with one another, and I had no part in that fight.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he remains hopeful that the House and Senate can resolve their differences on tax relief next year. “I think that’s one of the things we wish we had gotten together more on,” Busch said. “But there are a lot of issues on the table for that next year . . . I think those issues will resolve next year.”
But Miller said “there is a possibility the speaker and myself can call the General Assembly into special session for a single day” to address both tax relief and sick leave.
“Just those two proposals. Limited special ssesion for one day to do those two proposals,” he said, “They should go together in other words, provide business with a tax cut but at the same time, saying working men and women who are trying hard to make ends meet deserve earned sick leave. Both bodies support it and our people support it.”
The Senate gave final legislative approval Monday morning to a bill that would require doctors and pharmacists to use a statewide database to help identify abuse and over-prescribing of painkiller medications. The approved measure, sponsored by Sen. Katherine Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County), aligns with a recommendation made by Hogan’s heroin and opioid task force.
On Monday night, the House gave final approval to a bill designed to increase voter registration, in part by expanding requirements for state agencies and public colleges to provide opportunities to join the rolls. Lawmakers stripped out language requiring the state to do a one-time automatic registration of eligible voters who are not already enrolled.
The House failed to act on a bill that would have allowed voters to make a decision on whether to legalize daily fantasy sports. Miller said Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), who was visiting the chamber, should file a lawsuit to ban the games from operating in the state. “I know he’s capable of handling it,” Miller said.
Arelis Hernández contributed to this report.