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Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Maryland's two U.S. senators are preparing to unveil a series of proposals to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system, the first effort at a federal legislative response to the death of Freddie Gray and the riots that swept through Baltimore.

Some of the ideas being developed by Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski are well-worn — and others face long odds in the GOP-controlled Congress — but the two Democrats hope to gain traction by framing the initiatives as an answer to the mistrust between police and minority communities that was laid bare by the unrest in their home state this year.

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Cardin is crafting a sweeping measure that would require local law enforcement to improve reporting of police-involved shootings to the federal government, restore jury rights for ex-felons and reduce sentences for nonviolent drug possession, among other moves.

"We can have a balanced package to restore the confidence between communities and police," Cardin said. "We want police in our neighborhoods and we want the policing to work."

Though the legislation would have national impact, it is clearly intended to address what happened in Baltimore. To begin with, Cardin is naming the bill after the city: The "Building And Lifting Trust In order to Multiply Opportunities and Racial Equality act."

Mikulski, meanwhile, plans to speak in Sandtown-Winchester on Monday to announce several proposals she has added to an appropriations bill pending in the Senate. The provisions include $20 million more for police body cameras — an idea the Obama administration also supports — and a requirement that local police departments provide more thorough reporting of officer-involved shootings to the FBI.

The bill includes $22 million to reduce the rate at which ex-convicts return to prison, $14 million for the Justice Department's Community Relations Service, which works to mediate racial tensions, and $15 million for crime prevention grants.

Federal agencies focused attention on Baltimore in the days and weeks after the riots in April. The Justice Department is investigating the circumstances involving the death of Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died after suffering injuries in police custody. The secretaries of labor and education both visited the city, and said they were developing a program on youth job training.

Even the Department of the Interior has awarded the city a grant to connect Baltimore youth with work opportunities on public lands — including by planting trees and gardens in neighborhoods where rioting and looting occurred.

But there has been little response from Congress, either to the Gray case in Baltimore or to similar incidents involving police use of force in Ferguson, Mo., New York and South Carolina.

"We must fix the broken trust between our police and communities with more than a band-aid," Mikulski said in a statement. "That's why I'm fighting for more accountability through police training in use of force and racial and ethnic bias and better crime data collection."

Some of the efforts are unlikely to move forward any time soon. A centerpiece of Cardin's measure is a prohibition on racial profiling, a proposal he has long championed, but which has failed to advance despite support from the NAACP and other civil rights groups such. The measure would make certain federal grants to police departments contingent on the adoption of anti-profiling policies.

Mikulski, meanwhile, attached her language to the $51 billion Commerce, Science, and Justice spending bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. But that measure faces an uncertain path because President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any spending bill that does not roll back deep sequester cuts approved in 2011.

Republicans are maintaining the cuts in spending legislation, including the Justice bill. That means lawmakers are headed toward another showdown with the administration over government funding this fall.

But other ideas have secured a sliver of bipartisan attention, particularly with several GOP candidates for president discussing different approaches to criminal justice as they campaign.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, for instance, has supported expanding voting rights to some ex-felons. Paul, who visited Baltimore County last week, has also supported reducing some drug sentences, which would be part of Cardin's proposal.

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"We're not saying it's okay and we're not saying it's legal," Paul said recently. "We're just saying that it will be a misdemeanor … you will never lose your opportunity to work by having it permanently on your record. These are things that if we do, I think we can radically transform our country."

Cardin expects to introduce his legislation later this month. He described it as the first part of an effort that will also include provisions on broader social issues such as poverty and unemployment.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said criminal justice reform is "desperately, desperately needed."

Webster noted that the federal government is often forced to get involved when problems arise, as it has in Baltimore. It makes sense, he said, for it to take a step toward preventing those problems in the first place.

"The federal government has an important role to play," he said. "Our problems are pretty deep, and so is the need for reform."

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