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Sonja Sohn: Maryland needs a fundamental approach to criminal justice reform

ElectionsConservationExecutive BranchSonja Sohn

In a summer filled with stories of jailhouse corruption and deadly violence afflicting our city, many of us in the advocacy community are asking which candidate for governor will show the strongest commitment to meaningful criminal and juvenile justice reforms.

We are eager to see politicians who will do more than pay lip service to the topic, and we are beginning to see signs of life.

It was encouraging for the Obama administration to recently propose finally ending federal mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses. It is inspiring to see city and state leaders stand with us to help stem the recent senseless violence. I applaud Attorney General Doug Gansler, who plans to run for governor, for addressing our alarming recidivism rates.

But we need lawmakers and leaders with a larger vision. We will only achieve meaningful reform by addressing systemic, generational problems. The problems plaguing our criminal justice system do not begin and end in our correctional facilities.

They start in dilapidated public schools and broken communities suffering from a lack of social engagement, afterschool programs and job opportunities. They grow worse with inadequate resources and support for offenders re-entering society. We need a systems-wide approach. Proposals like giving wireless tablets to inmates miss the larger point about where the problems begin in the first place.

Delegate and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur has been working side by side with the advocacy community on these issues since long before the recent prison scandals and the latest outbreak of violence. She is committed to tackling the larger problems we face. She speaks to concrete solutions and a larger vision for tackling the cradle-to-prison pipeline that our current laws seem to perpetuate at every turn. Delegate Mizeur recognizes that we must take on injustice at every instance to achieve long-lasting success.

When you hear Heather talk about criminal and juvenile justice reform, you know that she is ready for this difficult task. She talks about shifting millions in state resources away from more walls and bars and instead investing in affirmative opportunities for youth. She proposes reducing penalties for low-level drug offenses that incarcerate far too many non-violent offenders. She wants to vastly improve our commitment to re-entry and job training programs.

At a larger level, Delegate Mizeur talks about fundamentally changing how government and our communities view offenders, because very few among them are truly beyond redemption. She envisions a system that no longer stacks the deck by making it impossible to find a good job or decent housing and by restricting voting rights and the ability to serve on juries. We still make it nearly impossible for former inmates to ever become full members of society again.

Heather will not just talk, either — she works to achieve results. She was a leading advocate in the successful repeal of Maryland's death penalty. She was a vocal opponent of the O'Malley-Brown administration's plan to build a new youth jail in Baltimore. She has worked with re-entry advocates to improve connections between inmates and their family members. She expanded access to low-income tax credits and health care for uninsured children and women to end cycles of poverty.

When you meet Heather, you know she has the vision and policy smarts to pull off these major reforms. She is informed, passionate and knows how to get things done. But my faith in her ability comes from something much more unique: when you hear her speak about her plans for reform — to the justice system, to the schools, to health care — you see her compassion and her desire to solve big problems. Unlike many, Heather really listens, and then she wastes no time getting to work to help improve lives. That's not something a politician can fake, learn or buy.

Sonja Sohn is the Founder and CEO of ReWired for Change and played Detective Kima Greggs on the hit HBO series, "The Wire." The views expressed are her own and do not reflect those of any organization.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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