A criminal justice bill that was supposed to significantly reduce recidivism in Maryland and sharply reduce state prison costs remained in limbo Monday amid questions about whether Senate amendments had essentially gutted the legislation.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) delayed a vote on the bill Monday morning after seeing an analysis of amendments to the bill that were adopted by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last week. The analysis showed that under the new version, the state would save $34 million over the next 10 years instead of the nearly $250 million initially projected. Instead of dropping by about 14 percent, the prison population would grow slightly, the analysis said.
“We’re going to have to look at this very carefully,” Miller said on the Senate floor. “If we don’t have savings, what are we doing?”
After a short debate on the bill Monday night, Miller agreed to delay the measure until Wednesday, allowing time for the Legislative Black Caucus to weigh in on the legislation.
Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s) asked for the delay, noting that the majority of the people in state prison are African American men. Miller made clear that the bill was not one that only affects the minority community.
“This bill affects everybody,” he said. “It isn’t a black bill or a white bill. . . It’s a bill of huge importance to the state of Maryland — the whole state.”
Concern over the measure came as the General Assembly worked its way through “crossover” day, the date by which most bills must have passed out of at least one chamber of the legislature to continue to advance during the 90-day session.
Among other things, the House of Delegates passed sweeping legislation that would change how police officers are hired, trained and disciplined. The measure largely follows the recommendations of a work group that was formed last year after the death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed.
Delegates also approved bills that would make public marijuana smoking a criminal — rather than a civil — offense; change the way businesses are taxed; require the state to obtain 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, make it easier for residents to register to vote; provide $55 million over five years to subsidize Prince George’s County hospital; and limit standardized testing to 2 percent of instruction time, or a little more than 20 hours a year.
The Senate voted to approve $671 million in modest tax reductions over the next five years; mandate funding for behavioral-health workers; increase funding for certain overcrowded school districts,; and prohibit government agencies from using aerial photography for property tax assessments. The Senate also approved some transportation projects, including the replacement of the Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland.
Bills that have been approved in one chamber move to the other chamber for consideration during the final three weeks of the session. But Miller and other legislative leaders said some bills, including the criminal justice bill, may advance even if they are not approved by either chamber as of Monday night.
The criminal-justice bill, which is modeled after others that have been enacted elsewhere, would send people charged with drug possession to treatment instead of prison; eliminate disparities in penalties for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine; make it easier to have drug-possession convictions expunged; and offer drug offenders the same number of credits to reduce their sentences that are given to other nonviolent offenders. It also would allow people who are serving mandatory minimums for drug offenses to appeal their sentences.
On Friday, Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the chairman of the Senate committee, hailed the bill as “landmark” legislation. He said Monday that the amended bill still makes major changes to criminal justice law that would treat offenders more fairly and save tax dollars.
One amendment that stirred concern deals with technical parole violations. The original bill would limit the sentence that can be given to a parole violator to 15 days for the first revocation and up to 45 days for the third revocation. The Senate committee voted last week to do away with the caps, allowing judges to impose longer sentences if they felt there was “good cause” to do so or that the parolee posed a public-safety risk.
On Monday evening, the committee offered a new amendment on the floor that removed the words “for other good cause” from the bill and limited the judge’s discretion to cases in which the parole violator is considered a public safety risk. Miller said that amendment largely satisfied his concerns.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, which worked with the state collecting and analyzing data on sentencing reform, last year found that the parole revocation provision made up at least one-third of the bill’s projected cost savings.
Under current law, a judge has full discretion on sentencing parole violators. Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, said the revised bill is “a significant step backwards.”
“It is very, very disappointing,” Schindler said. He accused the Senate committee of disregarding the work of the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a group appointed last year to study ways to reduce the state’s prison population, save money and reduce recidivism.
Another amendment that raised objections was the scaling back of a provision to make all nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after they have served 25 percent of their sentences. The Senate committee changed it to only low-risk offenders.
Zirkin told lawmakers that the committee’s amendments were an attempt to mitigate possible risks to public safety. He said he did not think that the changes would drastically affect the impact of the legislation. “I disagree vehemently that [the amendments] took $200 million off the savings,” he said.
There are slightly more than 20,000 prisoners in Maryland. The changes recommended by the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council would have reduced that to a projected 17,600 by fiscal 2026. As a result of the amendments, the analysis by a Pew researcher said, the prison population would grow to 20,921 during that period.
The tax-relief bill that was approved 37 to 8 by the Senate on Monday would slightly lower tax rates for residents in the top four income brackets, mostly individuals earning more than $100,000 and married couples earning more than $150,000. It would slightly increase the personal income tax exemption for middle-income taxpayers 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 do not have children.
Several Democrats voted against the measure, arguing that the money would be better spent on services that have been cut over the past few years.
The House marijuana bill also passed by a wide margin, 102 to 34, but drew some strong opposition. Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) supported the measure, saying her young children were recently exposed to marijuana smoke at an event at a Baltimore arena. Opponents argued that the legislation goes against recent efforts to reduce the number of people — disproportionately African Americans — who end up with criminal records for low-level pot use and possession.
“It goes against everything we are doing,” said Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s). “This is absolutely the wrong thing to do.”
The police legislation requires officers to receive psychological evaluations after a traumatic incident; gives residents more time to file brutality complaints; reduces the amount of time given to officers accused of misconduct before they are required to cooperate with an internal investigation; and requires a new commission to develop anti-discrimination and use-of-force de-escalation training for all officers. The measure also makes police hearings open to the public and requires the appointment of a civilian as a nonvoting member of the police review board.
The corporate tax bill would allow corporations to base their tax rates on sales in Maryland rather than a combination of sales, property and payroll in the state. The bill is intended to draw more companies to the state. Analysts say it would likely lower the tax burden for some small businesses headquartered in Maryland, but increase it for some small businesses based elsewhere.