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Maryland won't face up to discrimination in criminal justice

In June, the Maryland State Advisory Committee (SAC) to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a daylong briefing in Annapolis to gather information about racial disparities in Maryland's criminal justice system. As advocates for reform, we were initially pleased that this important issue would be addressed by the SAC and hoped this would be a major step forward in terms of creating a fairer justice system in Maryland.

Unfortunately, our optimism was misplaced.

The SAC heard eight hours of testimony from national and state experts, community representatives, scholars, government officials, advocacy group representatives and the public. Much of that testimony unequivocally showed pervasive racial disparities at all points of the criminal justice system, such as discriminatory treatment of African-Americans during vehicle stops on the Maryland highways, among arrests in Baltimore City, and at bail hearings. Many of these discriminatory actions have been challenged in civil rights lawsuits. Yet, the Maryland SAC ended its term Nov. 30 without releasing a report or making a single recommendation on how Maryland could remedy racial disparities in the state's criminal justice system.

We think this is a disservice to the citizens of Maryland, who deserve a fair and impartial justice system, and an abdication by the committee members of their responsibilities.

According to its website, the purpose of the Maryland SAC, made up of 18 Marylanders from around the state, was to "advise the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about discrimination or denial of the equal protection of law based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin." The SAC was also charged with keeping the U.S. Commission "informed about the administration of justice in Maryland."

State advisory commissions in other states have issued briefing reports that summarized testimony and data and made recommendations to governmental entities that were empowered to take action. For example, in 2008 the Vermont State Advisory Committee held a briefing and issued a report on racial profiling by the police in that state, which provided specific recommendations to the state police, attorney general and local police forces. In January, the Nevada State Advisory Committee released its report on the status of civil rights in that state, which included an examination of discriminatory police practices and hate crimes.

Maryland's SAC has plenty to report about. Despite making up 29 percent of the overall state population, African-Americans accounted for about 53 percent of arrests and more than 72 percent of the incarcerated population in Maryland. During the Maryland SAC's briefing earlier this year, experts provided testimony demonstrating that racial disproportionality exists at all points of the criminal justice system, from arrest to release.

In its 2007 report, "Maryland's Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing Laws," which was submitted to the SAC, the Justice Policy Institute found that although whites and nonwhites use and sell drugs at similar rates, African-Americans represented 90 percent of all those imprisoned in Maryland for a drug offense. Inequities affect how Maryland polices various communities and continue all the way through the system to the collateral consequences of a conviction — which in turn affects the ability of formerly incarcerated people to get jobs, find housing and generally be successful.

People across the state and beyond made an enormous effort to provide oral and written data in response to the Maryland SAC's solicitation for information. Undoubtedly, there was more than enough information to issue an informed report to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Yet, in early November, in response to a letter from the Greater Baltimore Grassroots Criminal Justice Network inquiring about the status of the report, a staffer for the Maryland SAC sent a letter saying that SAC members' terms would expire Nov. 30, and "a report will not be issued by that date." We were also advised that a new committee would not be appointed until next year, at which time "we will be able to provide you with more detail regarding this project."

This is not an acceptable conclusion to this process. Because racial disparities in the state's justice system are affecting the lives of Marylanders right now, we will not wait until next year to do something about it. So, we are taking matters into our own hands. The Greater Baltimore Grassroots Criminal Justice Network will be using the testimony provided to the Maryland SAC to write an independent report, laying out the clear evidence of racial disparities in Maryland's justice system and offering specific recommendations for addressing these disparities.

That so many people should devote so much time and effort to the briefing without the public having any knowledge of the results would be a tremendous waste and a miscarriage of justice to the state's many victims of discrimination. We refuse to let the Maryland SAC sidestep the issue of how the state's criminal justice system tramples Marylanders' civil rights and destroys lives and communities in the process. We hope that the newly appointed SAC will review our report and pick up where its predecessors left off.

We intend to have a full and compelling report ready for lawmakers and the public in the New Year. And we hope our state leaders will act on the information we provide with a greater sense of urgency than the Maryland State Advisory Committee has shown.

Keith Wallington ( and Walter Lomax are members of the Greater Baltimore Grassroots Criminal Justice Network.

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