A 'new' O'Malley talking criminal justice reform in Iowa

Justice reform talk from a zero-tolerance Baltimore mayor, no-parole Maryland governor

If he had not been planning to run for president for several years — with many of his decisions and positions as Maryland governor poured into that calculus — I would be tempted to say that Martin O'Malley's views on criminal justice had "evolved," that his current beliefs resulted from a thoughtful process free of political calculation.

And if we were not in the middle of one of those "national conversations" about cops, racial bias, mass incarceration and the long war on drugs, I might even believe O'Malley had had a genuine epiphany about the state of American justice.

But, alas, the man is running for president (has been for a long time) and several aspects of criminal justice — from the deaths of citizens in police custody to our world-leading rate of imprisonment — are issues in the presidential campaign, at least on the Democratic side.

So that explains the new, progressive Martin O'Malley who, while campaigning in Iowa, told The Des Moines Register that he sees criminal justice reform as a defining issue of the 2016 campaign.

"Scaling back on mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and boosting programs to help prepare prisoners to return home will be major parts of a policy proposal O'Malley's campaign plans to roll out soon," The Register reported.

What?

What happened to the zero-tolerance Baltimore mayor who became the no-parole-for-lifers governor of Maryland? Where's the guy who was once bullish on mandatory minimums?

Shortly after he left Baltimore for Annapolis, in 2007, the Maryland General Assembly presented O'Malley with a good, common-sense bill that would have improved the state's approach to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, many of them addicts who sell drugs to maintain their habits.

Instead of forcing those who had committed a second offense to serve a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison — at a cost in 2007 of $24,000 annually per inmate — the bill would have made those offenders eligible for parole after five years. Not a radical change, but it would have given Maryland judges some flexibility in disposing of such cases. In theory — and, I think, a sound one — the possibility of parole would have given inmates an incentive for behaving better while in prison, and for accepting addiction treatment and staying clean as a condition of their release.

Of course, during the nation's long war on drugs, there has been little room for that kind of judicial discretion. We built prisons to punish addicts when we should have been building hospitals to treat them. Mandatory minimums contributed mightily to our high national rate of incarceration and, in Maryland, to the tripling of the prison population over the three decades that preceded O'Malley's first term in Annapolis. By 2007, some 70 percent of inmates were in prison for crimes related to drugs.

Well, you'll never guess what happened.

Then again, you probably already have.

After saying he supported the bill, O'Malley vetoed it. And, to top it off, he told a radio interviewer that he believed "drug-dealing is a violent crime" that needed to be punished.

That was then (O'Malley as the tough-on-crime, zero-tolerance Clinton Democrat) and this is now (O'Malley, the progressive reformer running for president to the left of a Clinton in the time of #BlackLivesMatter).

As for "boosting programs to help prepare prisoners to return home," all I can say is: O'Malley never had much to say about improving offender re-entry. It just wasn't an expressed, high-value goal of his. In fact, his predecessor, Republican Bob Ehrlich, was far more enlightened on the subject, proposing a holistic, entrance-to-exit plan for inmates that would have prepared them for successful re-entry while they were incarcerated. Ehrlich got nowhere with that idea during his four years in Annapolis, where he faced a legislature dominated by Democrats.

When it was O'Malley's turn, he didn't exactly take up the ex-offender cause with fellow Democrats. And yet, recidivism in Maryland — that is, the rate at which released offenders return to prison within three years — fell from 48.5 percent in 2007 to 43.3 percent by 2011. O'Malley gets to take credit for that, but it was his corrections secretary, Gary Maynard, who really pushed the effort, his success on recidivism overshadowed by numerous problems, including the Black Guerilla Family's virtual takeover of the Baltimore Detention Center.

As governor, O'Malley was well known for his no-parole policy for people serving life sentences, even aging lifers who had been recommended for release by the Maryland Parole Commission. One such inmate, Tarif Abdullah, died of liver cancer in prison.

O'Malley did not grant parole to any lifers until 2012, and then only under pressure from a new state law, and then to only two of the 59 inmates recommended for release by the commission.

Using the governor's power to deny parole to lifers was one way O'Malley reasserted the crime-fighter cred he earned as Baltimore's zero-tolerance mayor. He probably thought all that tough-guy stuff would serve him well in a populist run for the presidency.

Guess not.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is also host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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