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Maryland legislature's crime bill debate reveals divide over punishment, rehabilitation

As state lawmakers have debated legislative ideas intended to curb Baltimore’s violence this year, a deep divide emerged over which crime-fighting philosophy the General Assembly should emphasize: rehabilitation or punishment.

Passionate advocates emerged on both sides as lawmakers in Annapolis moved Monday to finalize a compromise allowing some felons to eventually erase offenses from their criminal records and to stiffen mandatory minimum sentences for some gun offenses.

The disagreements centered on how far state law should go to give offenders a second chance, and how long convicted felons should have to serve for certain crimes.

Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, said he could not support loosening sentencing guidelines when the state and country are grappling with an opioid epidemic, whose death toll has included his niece.

While the drug dealer who sold her heroin laced with fentanyl could one day have his crimes expunged, he said, “My niece will still be dead.”

Del. Mary Washington, a Democrat who represents Northeast Baltimore, pushed to allow people convicted of felonies including drug possession with intent to distribute, burglary and theft to expunge those offenses a decade after completing their sentence.

“We’re not talking about making excuses,” Washington said Saturday, stressing that the convictions can prevent many young offenders from getting jobs and contributing to society. “The truth is they come from families and communities, too.”

But others in the General Assembly were unwilling to go beyond the compromise expected to pass, which allows those felonies to be erased from records after 15 years.

“We’re literally talking about how hard it is for a felon to find a job. The people we represent here are not all criminals,” said Del. C.T. Wilson, a Democrat from Charles County. “What about the victim?”

The General Assembly has in recent years embraced the idea of “restorative justice” — rehabilitating criminals and preparing them to be productive members of society, instead of simply locking them up.

In 2016, Gov. Larry Hogan signed the Justice Reinvestment Act, ending various mandatory minimum sentences of between 10 and 40 years for repeat offenders of drug dealing crimes, expanding expungement of misdemeanors and reforming the ways parole violations are handled and good-time credits are calculated.

Del. Angela Angel, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said the legislation set to pass this year reverses some of the progress made by what was considered to be one of the broadest criminal justice reform measures in decades.

“This bill does a lot of good things; this bill does a lot of questionable things,” Angel said. “We can call it whatever we’d like. We’re undoing a lot of the work we did in the Justice Reinvestment Act.”

A less controversial element of the crime-fighting legislative package includes investment in programs like Safe Streets, where mediators work to prevent violence from erupting in Baltimore neighborhoods.

Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat, proposed legislation providing funding to expand Safe Streets around the city. Branch testified in a committee hearing about the murder of his grandson in Baltimore in 2017, a per-capita record year for homicides in the city.

“Last year there were 342 murders; my grandson was 239,” Branch told his colleagues. “I wanted to do something in honor of my grandson, to try to help to save a life and to try to curb this record number of murders in our city.”

Lawmakers acknowledged a mix of strategies is needed.

Sen. Anthony C. Muse, a Prince George’s Democrat, acknowledged concerns about mass incarceration but said there is also an imminent demand to take violent repeat offenders off of streets to “keep our communities safe.”

“None of what we do is perfect,” Muse said last month. “But we negotiate and we do our best.”

sdance@baltsun.com

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