Maryland General Assembly gives final approval to sweeping criminal justice overhaul

General Assembly gives final approval to sweeping criminal justice overhaul.

The General Assembly gave its final approval Monday to a sweeping reform of Maryland's criminal justice system in an effort to reduce incarceration and use the savings to prevent repeat offenses and improve public safety.

Both the state Senate and the House voted to approve a deal struck by negotiators Saturday night. Legislative staff and the print shop labored through Sunday and into Monday to deliver the 163-page bill to the floor in time for passage before the a midnight deadline. The legislature's annual 90-day session ends tonight.

In an unusual display of bipartisan cooperation, the measure brought together Democrats and Republicans on landmark legislation.

"It is as big of an undertaking as I've seen down here in 18 years," said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who led Senate negotiators.

The Senate passed the final deal unanimously. The House approved the compromise 122-19.

The bill passed with the support of Gov. Larry Hogan, whose aide Christopher B. Shank chaired the council that recommended the changes to the legislature and who played a key role in striking the final agreement.

Hogan said he was "thrilled' with the result.

"People have been working very hard on it and we're very happy with how it came out," he said. "It was literally shuttle diplomacy, back and forth between the House and the Senate making it happen."

Among other things, the bill gives priority to drug treatment above incarceration in cases of drug possession and eliminates minimum mandatory sentences for drug dealers. It also makes it easier to expunge convictions for certain lower-level crimes after a certain period of good behavior.

The bill also adopts broad reforms to the parole and probation system to make it less likely that an offender will be sent back to jail to complete a term for technical infractions.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials, who played a key role in the negotiations throughout the council study and the legislative deliberations, won some tough provisions that were important to them. The maximum penalty for second-degree murder will increase, and the state will adopt a program modeled on the federal government's Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to prosecute organized crime and drug gangs.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who acts as a spokesman for prosecutors statewide, called the final agreement on justice reinvestment a “very balanced approach.”

“It does a lot to get drug and mental health treatment for the people that need it,” he said. “Yet there are some great public safety protections in there.”

A few delegates expressed concerns. Del. Pat McDonough, a Republican who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, said he applauds the goals of expanding drug treatment. But he questioned why that was "lumped into one massive piece of experimental legislation" along with shorter sentences and changes to parole and probation.

McDonough said he worries that treatment beds won't be available for drug users, and the end result will be "putting more people into a safety net that doesn't exist."

Other delegates said they worked hard to craft a bill that will enact transformational reforms to the criminal justice system.

"This bill is a major accomplishment," said Del. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican who was involved in the intense negotiations on the bill over the weekend.

Toni Holness, public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maryland, said while not entirely thrilled with everything in the bill, her organization still applauds its passage.

The ACLU did not like the longer sentences for second-degree murder and child abuse that results in death, as that goes counter to the idea that long sentences don't actually improve public safety.

But the ACLU supports favoring treatment over incarceration, shorter sentences and improving rehabilitation programs for inmates so that they don't land back in jail.

"I feel optimistic," Holness said. "It is a much-needed step forward, but it is really only a first step in a long road."

Holness said the bipartisan support for justice reinvestment shows that dedicated people can work together "if it is the right thing to do."

"We applaud our legislators for being bold ... The current policies are not keeping us safe and are wasting our tax dollars," she said.

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