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Bipartisan panel in Annapolis recommends much shorter drug sentences, more drug treatment

An influential General Assembly panel is recommending significant changes in sentencing laws for drug use — part of a plan to imprison thousands fewer people and use the savings to help others stay out of jail.

The bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council says the state can reduce the number of imprisoned Marylanders by 4,000 over the next decade, a decrease of nearly 20 percent.

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It recommends using the roughly $250 million that would be saved to invest in drug treatment programs and other services to help ex-prisoners successfully return to society.

"Conservatives and liberals have come together to make the statement that the long-fought 'War on Drugs' is a total failure," said Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe, a member of the panel. "Using mass incarceration to address a health problem has had a huge cost in devastation to our communities. States across the country, including Maryland, are now trying to reverse the trend."

The panel could not reach consensus on more controversial proposals, including a plan to cut maximum sentences for drug dealers by 75 percent.

The group was created by the General Assembly with Gov. Larry Hogan's signature. It included a prosecutor, two former judges and Republican and Democratic lawmakers. After working on its proposals for six months, it said Thursday it recommends significantly reducing maximum sentences for convicted drug users.

"This will be the largest drug-treatment bill that has ever passed in the state of Maryland," said state Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican. "This will do more to treat people with mental health [problems] than anything else we've done."

America has the world's largest prison population, with more inmates than even China or Russia. The panel reviewed Maryland's inmate population and found 58 percent were jailed for nonviolent crimes.

"Over the last decade, Maryland has achieved large declines in both its violent and property crime rates, but only modest reductions in the state prison population," the council wrote in its final report. It noted that more than 20,000 people are in Maryland prisons, at a cost of $1.3 billion a year.

Under Maryland law, possession of narcotics is punishable by up to four years in prison for a first offense. The panel recommends sending many offenders to drug treatment programs and, if they are sent to jail, cutting the maximum penalty for a first offense to no more than a year. The panel also wants to eliminate the disparate sentencing practices for crack cocaine versus powdered cocaine, which the panel said "contributed to disparities in sentencing between black and white offenders."

For marijuana possession, the panel recommended legislation ordering that judges cannot impose more than a 6-month sentence for a first conviction. It also recommended legislation requiring prompt placement in residential drug treatment facilities for most drug offenders.

"Research indicates that incarcerating drug offenders can actually increase the likelihood they will recidivate once they leave prison," the panel wrote. "This is because prison can exacerbate the criminal risk factors that drive recidivism by expanding the sphere of antisocial influences."

It also recommends reserving prison beds only for "serious and violent offenders," strengthening parole and probation supervision, and expanding re-entry services. To become law, its recommendations would have to be approved as legislation in the General Assembly and signed by the governor.

"The council's recommendations are a roadmap to make our streets safer and save millions of taxpayer dollars," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said in a statement.

Hogan also spoke of a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars — on drug treatment rather than incarceration.

"It is our responsibility to ensure that every Maryland tax dollar spent on our criminal justice system delivers the highest return on our investment in public safety," Hogan said in a statement. The council "focused on how to treat offenders suffering from substance abuse or mental health problems, and explored reentry programs that could help them become contributing members of their communities once they return home."

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Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat on the panel who has a reputation for being tough on crime, said he argued against cutting sentences for drug dealing. But he said he supports "sensible changes," such as reduced sentences for drug possession.

"We've been doing the same thing for 40 years, and we still have the same problems," Shellenberger said. "Tweaking the system and using the money in a smarter way is a very good concept."

Del. Erek L. Barron, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he hopes the General Assembly will revisit the issue of reducing sentences for nonviolent drug dealing.

"This is really about being smart on crime, instead of just being tough on crime," he said. "After the uprising in Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement, this is an opportunity to make a bold move forward."

Christopher B. Shank, director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, said disagreements were to be expected. But he said everyone could agree about the direction away from jail time for nonviolent drug offenders who need treatment, not incarceration.

"We've got a revolving door right now," he said. "We're not addressing the fundamental issues of drug addiction. It's negatively impacting public safety. It's fueling violence in our communities. It's ripping apart families."

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