Advocates plan to push in the coming General Assembly session to expand Maryland's laws allowing people with minor criminal records to clear the slate when they seek jobs, housing and education.
Latching on to a national trend of questioning "tough-on-crime" policies, the advocates and lawmakers say conditions are favorable to build on the successes they achieved in the 2015 session in giving people who had trouble with the law a second chance.
"I do think we are in a vastly different political climate now than we were three or four years ago," said Michael Pinard, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Several bills are in the works that would build on Maryland's existing laws on expungement, which essentially erases criminal records, and shielding, which blocks the disclosure of a past arrest or conviction to anyone other than law enforcement.
Not everyone is convinced that 2016 is the year to take up such issues. Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger noted that the state passed bills in 2015 that significantly expanded expungement and shielding. One of them was the Second Chance Act, which allows people convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors such as drug possession to ask a court to remove those records from public access. Another allows those convicted of offenses that are no longer crimes, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana, to have those records expunged.
Shellenberger, a Democrat regarded as a hard-liner on crime, said that's enough for now.
"I think what we need to do is take a pause and see what effect [2015's] changes had on folks before we rush in and start adding even more," he said.
But supporters say a further expansion is needed to clear the way for people who have had past brushes with the law — particularly African-Americans in Baltimore — to become fully functioning members of their communities. They're counting on a heightened awareness of a need to provide opportunities in the aftermath of the unrest in Baltimore in the spring
In many neighborhoods in Baltimore, the only thriving local industry is the illegal drug trade. An article in The Baltimore Sun this month chronicled the difficulties faced by former low-level dealers who are trying to put that business behind them and gain legitimate jobs.
Matthew A. Clark, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the governor has expressed a keen interest in such issues but couldn't offer a comment on bills the administration hasn't seen.
"We're very willing to join in a thorough and open-minded review," Clark said.
The intended beneficiaries of the developing legislative proposals are those who were convicted of relatively minor nonviolent offenses, as well as those who were arrested but never found guilty.
"You have significant numbers of workers that are saddled with criminal records as a result of charges that did not result in a conviction," said Caryn Aslan, senior policy advocate at the Job Opportunities Task Force, a Baltimore-based advocacy group.
The expungement and shielding measures that will come before the legislature when it returns Jan. 13 are among a full plate of criminal-justice issues lawmakers are expected to consider during the annual 90-day session. They include measures to reduce incarceration levels, increase oversight of police conduct and write statewide rules for the use of body cameras by law enforcement.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he is likely to sponsor a measure adding simple drug possession to the list of charges eligible for full expungement instead of just shielding. For now, he noted, the only way to erase such a conviction is a gubernatorial pardon.
"That person has trouble getting a job or getting housing or getting into school because of that criminal record," he said.
Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he's also open to adding to the list of nonviolent offenses eligible for shielding. And he's considering a proposal to let judges hold certain cases open for potential future expungement.
But there are limits to forgiveness, he said. Zirkin ruled out any extension of shielding or expungement to sex crimes or violent offenses. And he's skeptical about a proposal by Aslan and other advocates to make possession of a drug with intent to distribute — one of the most common offenses for which Marylanders are incarcerated — eligible for shielding or expungement.
"We're not talking about volume dealers. We're not talking about kingpins," Aslan said. She contends that such a measure would help many former low-level dealers, many of whom sold drugs to feed their own habits, to overcome impediments to entering the workforce.
But Shellenberger, who frequently speaks for the state's prosecutors on legislation, said that would be "pushing it way too far," and Aslan acknowledged that her group has yet to find a sponsor.
Aslan said advocates are farther along with another important measure that would abolish what is known as "the unit rule." At least two delegates, Baltimore Democrat Curt Anderson and Prince George's County Democrat Erek Barron, plan bills to scrap the rule.
Under that rule, if a person is charged with multiple offenses committed during a single incident — known as a unit — he or she cannot have any of those arrests expunged or shielded as long as one of them falls outside the list of eligible crimes. Aslan cited the case of a man who was found not guilty of disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful order, but convicted of resisting arrest. Because the resisting charge is ineligible, she said, he can't get the other two offenses off his record.
Pinard, the UM law professor, said the multiple offenses can make a difference.
"You might think differently of a person who has one [charge] instead of four as an employer," he said.
Zirkin said he is sympathetic to the idea of scrapping the rule but sees logistical problems. He said it would be difficult to expunge one charge in a case file but not another. He held open the possibility that shielding would be more feasible.
Any such proposals will face resistance in the House Judiciary Committee from Del. John W. E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican and former police sergeant. Cluster said he believes the existing Second Chance bill went too far and opposes any expansion.
"I'm going to fight this again tooth and nail. I just don't think it's a good business-friendly bill," he said.
Cluster said he opposes scrapping the unit rule bill because in many cases prosecutors cut deals that reduce serious charges to much lesser ones. He said something that started out as an armed robbery could be negotiated down to a charge of theft — an offense that cannot be shielded now but could have been under an earlier version of the legislation.
"You would be expunging a very serious crime," he said. "They did the crimes, and the business owners ought to be aware of who they're hiring."