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Correctional officers' rights must be upheld

The recent indictments of more than a dozen Maryland correctional officers on charges of corruption are deeply troubling. It is important to note, however, that more than 7,500 officers across Maryland perform a necessary job in a very dangerous environment every day. And the vast majority perform their tough duties with the utmost professionalism.

As these troubling allegations have brought into sharp focus, Maryland must recruit and retain women and men with the highest integrity to fill these important positions of public trust. That is why I was proud to sponsor the Correctional Officers' Bill of Rights in the Maryland General Assembly in 2010. It disturbs me that some public comments about the bill paint an inaccurate picture of what this important legislation does and does not do.

The Correctional Officers' Bill of Rights gives Maryland's correctional officers due process rights when charged with infractions of rules. It is very similar to the Miranda rights all Americans enjoy. This includes the right to know what you are being investigated for, the right to counsel, and the right to refrain from being forced to make a statement until after counsel has been obtained.

Prior to the passage of this legislation, officers were presumed guilty instead of innocent until a charge was proven. Some received inappropriate, harsh punishments including termination for minor rules infractions that were later determined to be out of proportion to the misdeed. Some allegations were even withdrawn or proven false after officers had lost their jobs, costing them their homes and putting an unnecessary strain on their families.

The Correctional Officers' Bill of Rights was passed to protect honest officers from inappropriate and arbitrary punishment. Some changes to this law were made at the request of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS). This included an increase in the time allowed to investigate a charge of wrongdoing by an officer and decide an appropriate level of punishment, up to and including termination. This extension from 30 to 90 days was done to prevent action prior to completion of a full investigation. Union members agreed with the department's proposal. This legislation passed the Maryland House unanimously and the Senate by a margin of 44-2 and was signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

As the legislature reviews what went wrong at the Baltimore City Detention Center, we should keep in mind that the Correctional Officers Bill of Rights does not prevent the DPSCS from firing an officer for wrongdoing. In fact, the same year this legislation was passed, the department reported it fired approximately 70 officers for fraternization with inmates.

Nor does the bill prevent the DPSCS from referring serious violations of state law to the Maryland State Police for investigation where criminal charges could be sought. It does not afford any protections in a felony case. Its focus is on administrative charges.

As we investigate what went wrong and how to right it, let's not be in a rush as to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Maryland can root out corruption while at the same time protecting a cherished American right to due process. Legislators should be purposeful about protecting the important due process rights of these hardworking women and men.

Del. Galen Clagett is a Democrat from Frederick. His email is galen.clagett@house.state.md.us.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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