A wide-ranging crime bill backed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and approved earlier by state senators foundered in the Maryland House of Delegates amid opposition from civil liberties groups and black and Latino lawmakers.
But on Saturday, the House, with just one full day left in its 90-day session, passed two pieces of more modest legislation containing aspects of the controversial Senate measure, including tougher penalties for repeat violent offenders.
Some lawmakers who opposed the major overhaul backed the more limited measures because of a provision allowing residents who commit certain felonies to have their records expunged after 15 years.
“It still gives some people heartburn,” Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the newly elected chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said of one of the approved bills opposed by some because it would strengthen penalties for violent offenders. “I told people to vote their conscience.”
Barnes said he voted against that bill because of the enhanced penalties but recognized there “are good things and bad things” in the legislation.
Toni Holness, a policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and leading opponent of the Senate measure, said some positive changes were evident in the measures passed Saturday by the House. A provision in the original Senate bill raising the maximum sentence from 20 to 40 years for a second-time offender using a firearm in connection with drug trafficking was stripped from the bill passed Saturday, for example.
But the measure that passed also includes a provision requiring that a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for a second violent offense be served in full, without the possibility of parole or having the sentence suspended.
“Expanded sentences — whether mandatory minimums or enhanced maximums — have never made us safer,” Holness said in an interview. “They are regressive provisions that will not improve the lives of Marylanders.”
She called the addition of the expungement provision “a transparent attempt to legitimize a bad bill.”
But supporters of the original legislation — including Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) and the sponsor, Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) — balked at the civil liberties groups’ characterization of the bill as a return to the era of “tough on crime” policies. They say their focus has always been on violent and repeat offenders and providing additional money to curtail crime in Baltimore, which last year recorded 347 homicides.
Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor supports the measures passed Saturday, which he thinks “will have a transformative impact on reducing violent crime” in Baltimore and across the state.
“The governor made it clear that he supports second chances for nonviolent offenders when he worked with both parties to pass the landmark Justice Reinvestment Act. However, he believes Maryland must take action to target the repeat violent offenders who are terrorizing our communities,” Chasse said.
Progressive members of the House said the expungement measure did not go far enough. It allows for the erasure of criminal records after 15 years for people convicted of burglary, theft and possession with intent to distribute.
Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), who voted against the bill, said 15 years is “entirely too long to wait” to have a record expunged. She backed a failed attempt to reduce that to 10 years.
But Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of the Baltimore delegation, said lawmakers were most comfortable with 15 years, which he said would be a substantial improvement from current law, which does not allow any felons to have their records expunged.
“We’ve taken baby steps to get this far,” Anderson said Saturday on the House floor. He added that if the bill becomes law, there “will automatically be thousands of people who will now have their records expunged.”
Another measure would repeal a long-standing law that allows a defendant serving a sentence for a violent crime to be transferred from jail for drug treatment. Now, that substance abuse treatment would be provided in jail.
Provisions that were widely supported included increasing penalties for witness intimidation, adding fentanyl to a list of drugs that are illegal for distribution and eliminating a prohibition on drug-testing kits.