Maryland’s legislature passed a number of bills this year aimed at reforming the criminal justice system or helping ex-offenders turn their lives around, including several proposals that stalled in committee in previous legislative sessions.
One bill restores full voting rights for ex-felons while they are still on parole. Others create more chances for ex-offenders to expunge their criminal records or shield long-ago or minor convictions from public view.
There was a bill approved that would require a statewide accounting of civilian deaths at the hands of police officers, and another that sets policies for how police departments should use body cameras. Both of those, lawmakers said, were inspired in part by the national conversation about racial profiling and police conduct sparked by violent deaths last year in Ferguson, Mo. and New York’s Staten Island.
“All you have to do is look at Ferguson and what came out of the Justice Department,” said Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), referring to a federal finding that the suburban Missouri police department demonstrated a pattern of racial bias and misconduct. “African Americans are being targeted, pulled over, falsely charged. . . . I think that has led to the tone changing” in Annapolis, Muse said.
The three-month legislative session that concluded last Monday was dominated by negotiations over Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s first budget. But other than the debate over the spending plan — in which lawmakers clashed with Hogan over funding for schools, state employee pay raises and other initiatives — there seemed to be no topic that drew as much attention as criminal justice reform.
Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s) said the national focus on Ferguson was one reason that bills about incarceration and law enforcement — many of which were embraced by the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland — seemed to have more success this year.
Benson, a member of the caucus who spoke passionately in favor of many of the reforms during floor debates, also cited the large number of first-term lawmakers arriving in Annapolis and some shake-ups on committees that are the gatekeepers for such legislation.
“You can see a new breed coming on board. They realize that it’s urgent for them to listen to their constituents and not just do what’s best for themselves,” said Benson, a retired educator who has served in the General Assembly for 24 years. “They’re moving towards the center on a number of issues.”
A bill to restore voting rights to ex-felons, for example, was sponsored by Del. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore), a freshman delegate who sold drugs as a teenager and says he easily could have ended up behind bars had he not turned his life around.
Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the groundwork for passage of the legislation was laid with the state legislature’s repeal of the death penalty in 2013 — which “opened up everyone’s mind” to criminal justice issues and “created a space for us to discuss what it means to have a criminal justice system.”
He described a similar phenomenon when Maryland legalized same-sex marriage in 2012 after a lengthy and emotional debate, and then passed protections for transgender individuals two years later with far less debate and opposition.
Raskin said that justice reform drew bipartisan support, especially as Republicans realized that the state could save money — and create the possibility of having more taxpayers — by incarcerating fewer people. “We’ve gotten past the obsolete discussion over tough-on-crime, and we’ve entered the much more fruitful discussion of smart-on-crime,” he said.
In addition to bills that would allow for the expungement of criminal records, give voting rights to ex-felons while they’re on parole or probation and repeal mandatory minimum sentences for second-time drug offenders, the legislature also decriminalized possession of drug paraphernalia, such as bongs.
And lawmakers passed a bill, known as the Second Chance Act, that shields certain nonviolent misdemeanor criminal records from public view, making it easier for ex-offenders to get a job. Shielding laws had been introduced year after year, but failed until now.
To qualify, ex-offenders would have to serve their full sentence, along with any parole, stay out of trouble for three years and then apply for shielding. Raskin said there are about 200,000 Marylanders who have this “scarlet letter” — some of whom have not had a problem with the law for decades, yet are still dogged by this mark on their record.
“In the age of the Internet, everything is known,” Raskin said. “If we believe that people should have a second chance, this is the group of people we want to target.”
Members of the black caucus say there is much more work to do. They note several bills dealing with police policies and practices that did not make it through, including a bill that would have required the state prosecutor to investigate all police-related deaths, and one that would authorize the state parole commission — not the governor — to decide whether a person serving a life sentence should be granted parole.
“They say the wheels of justice move slowly,” said Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), who is on the House Judiciary Committee. “So do the wheels of Annapolis.”
At the same time, the measures drew angry criticism from some opponents, including Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County), who dubbed the legislative session the “Year of the criminal.”
Benson said she is still evaluating whether Hogan, who has met with the black caucus and has said he supports the Second Chance Act, is on board with a more liberal approach to criminal justice.
The test for her: If he signs into law the bill that would allow ex-offenders to vote as soon as they are released from jail rather than waiting until they finish parole or probation.
“If he signs off on that, that opens the door for us going in to talk to him about these other issues,” she said. “It’s a real learning curve for the governor. And hopefully we will see a more sensitive approach to these issues.”