By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
10:01 PM EST, February 4, 2014
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather R. Mizeur plans to propose what she calls a "transformational" approach to fighting crime on Wednesday, in which she would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and use the governor's clemency and pardon powers to cut the prison population.
Mizeur will introduce a detailed plan calling for a holistic approach to reducing crime, including social and educational programs as well as law enforcement strategies.
"We cannot settle on 'tough on crime' after the fact — we need to stop crime before it occurs," she says in a 13-page plan.
The document explicitly rejects what Mizeur calls "Maryland's strategy of mass incarceration." It incorporates some of her earlier proposals, including legalization and regulation of marijuana, expanded pre-kindergarten education and a requirement that workers receive a "living wage" higher than current proposals for an increased minimum wage. Mizeur says all of these proposals would help reduce crime in the long run.
She would eliminate cash bail as a condition of pre-trial release and rely instead on risk-assessment tests. She would allow people who have been convicted of misdemeanors to apply to get their records wiped clean and would reduce the stigma of a criminal record in seeking housing or employment.
Mizeur would also require that firearms be removed from homes where there is reason to suspect domestic abuse and impose tougher background checks on buyers of rifles and shotguns.
She calls for a significant cut in the number of juvenile offenders in the state's youth detention facilities, an end to the "cradle-to-prison pipeline" and an expansion of treatment programs.
Mizeur, a two-term delegate from Montgomery County, faces two opponents in the June 24 Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.
Brown and Gansler have taken a somewhat more traditional approach to fighting crime. Neither, for example, embraced her call in November for legalization of marijuana.
Last summer, Gansler unveiled a 10-point plan for slowing what he called the prison "revolving door," which included some provisions similar to Mizeur's. Brown has rolled out proposals to curb domestic violence. His campaign says he intends to release a broader crime platform during the campaign.
Mizeur's proposals would likely face political push-back, especially from prosecutors.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat, said he doesn't believe Maryland keeps too many people behind bars. He said mandatory minimum sentences play an important role in public safety, especially for felonies committed with guns.
Shellenberger also expressed reservations about expunging certain criminal records. He said he had no quarrel with taking an old marijuana possession conviction off somebody's record but balked at erasing convictions such as theft.
"Future employers do need protection," he said.
Since presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was soundly defeated in 1988 — due in part to the "Willie Horton" ad attacking the Massachusetts governor as soft on crime as a result of a furlough given to a convicted murderer — leading Democrats from President Bill Clinton to Gov. Martin O'Malley have taken hard-line positions on drugs and criminal justice issues.
Mizeur said in an interview that she has no concerns about facing similar ads.
"Maryland is ready for a governor who puts politics aside and focuses on progress," she said.
Mizeur rejected O'Malley's approach to crime.
"The current administration's approach doubles down on the failed war on drugs, protecting unfair and ineffective minimum sentences and overpopulated prisons plagued by corruption and repeat offenders," her plan says.
Mizeur said mandatory minimum sentences have proved ineffective.
"We have taken important discretion away from judges and forced unfair sentences on nonviolent offenders," she said.
Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center in Washington, said Mizeur's emphasis on reducing incarceration reflects a national trend.
"A lot of governors around the country are singing from that same sheet of music," she said. "Yes, the pendulum has swung, and I think it's a result of the realization that we can't sustain this level of incarceration."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun