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Focus turns to criminal justice in Senate race

Donna Edwards, Chris Van Hollen spar over mass incarceration policies in Senate race.

The national debate over criminal justice reform has become a central issue in the campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat, with the leading Democratic candidates clashing over each other's records on mass incarceration policies.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat, blames her opponent for swelling prison populations because he supported legislation in Congress to impose mandatory minimum sentences. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County has backed reducing penalties for nonviolent offenses and contends that Edwards only waded into the debate after launching her Senate campaign.

The back-and-forth follows a bipartisan shift in thinking about tough-on-crime policies that many Democrats — including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — supported in the 1990s. It also reflects ideas that have been embraced as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Criminal justice is almost certain to emerge as an issue Friday as the candidates running to succeed Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski engage in their first televised debate. That debate is sponsored by The Baltimore Sun, WJZ-TV, the University of Baltimore and the Baltimore City League of Women Voters. The primary is set for April 26.

"It's a very interesting moment that we're in right now because criminal justice reform has heated up as a policy issue," said Jason Ziedenberg, with the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. "There have certainly been times in this country when you would have been hard pressed to find any legislator resisting the wave of punitive bills that were brought in."

Edwards, who often discusses the importance of electing an African-American to the mostly white Senate, opened a new line of attack against Van Hollen during a recent radio debate, saying it is "because of legislators like him that we've seen increased incarceration rates in Maryland and across the country."

Van Hollen, Edwards added, "was leading the charge ... for mandatory minimum sentences."

In response, Van Hollen provided The Sun a letter Thursday from five members of the Maryland General Assembly and a number of former lawmakers arguing that Edwards' "attempts to characterize his efforts to ensure justice for victims of rape and violence as a root cause of mass incarceration are simply wrong."

As a state senator, Van Hollen crafted a bill in 2001 to limit a judge's ability to reduce a criminal sentence — requiring the court to make such a determination within 15 months of initial sentencing. The legislation, which ultimately died, came in response to an investigation by The Washington Post that found judges in Maryland were reducing sentences years later with little explanation or notice to victims.

Many states pressed for truth-in-sentencing laws in the 1990s, and those statutes generally required a prisoner to serve more of a sentence before becoming eligible for parole. It was a landmark crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 — and supported by Sanders, then a member of the House — that encouraged those policies by providing federal grants to states that approved them.

But the idea was questioned as prison populations rose. Criticism of the policies grew after the deaths of black men in confrontations with or in the custody of police, including in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and in Baltimore last year. Those incidents led to unrest and stoked discussion of racial disparities within the criminal justice system.

Baltimore and its suburbs are a critical battleground in the Senate race.

The Edwards campaign also points to a vote by Van Hollen in 2005 in favor of a bill that imposed mandatory minimum sentences for violent, gang-related crimes. That legislation, which did not pass, was opposed by criminal justice reform advocates who felt such laws limited the ability of judges to weigh the individual circumstances of a case.

Van Hollen draws a distinction between violent crime and nonviolent drug offenses. He said he has long supported eliminating minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and noted that he has secured millions of dollars in funding for anti-gang efforts that are focused on prevention and intervention, rather than locking people up.

In an interview, Van Hollen also pointed to the history surrounding the 2005 legislation in Congress. The measure came at a time when Central American gangs such as MS-13 were expanding territory in Maryland and engaging in brutal murders.

Though Van Hollen was in the minority of his party supporting the gang bill, every Democrat in Maryland voted for it except Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. (Edwards was not serving at the time). When Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California reintroduced the bill two years later, Mikulski — whom both candidates frequently praise — was a co-sponsor.

"I've been focused on this scandal of mass incarceration for a long time, and have argued that it is a mistake to treat nonviolent substance abuse as a criminal matter when it should be addressed as a health care issue," Van Hollen said. "Congresswoman Edwards just discovered this serious issue during the election season."

Van Hollen said it is significant that Edwards has not signed on as a co-sponsor to bipartisan legislation, the Smarter Sentencing Act, that would reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The legislation appears unlikely to advance before the presidential election, but advocates believe it could serve as the nucleus of an eventual law.

"It's one thing to talk about it," Van Hollen said. "It's another thing to put together the framework and be part of the real effort to change it."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

The debate

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Rep Donna Edwards — the top two Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate as determined by independent public polling — will debate from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Friday. The debate will be broadcast on WJZ-TV and streamed on baltimoresun.com and CBSbaltimore.com at 7 p.m. on Monday. The debate will be held at the University of Baltimore's H. Mebane Turner Learning Commons at 1415 Maryland Ave. Tickets are available at ubalt.edu.

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