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Justice Reinvestment Act: Measuring once and cutting twice

Op-ed: A wise carpenter measures twice, then cuts once. Maryland's Justice Reinvestment Act cuts twice.

A wise carpenter measures twice, then cuts once. The Justice Reinvestment Act cuts twice, and its impact will not be measured until the criminals it frees are back on our streets.

The Justice Reinvestment Act cuts both the front and back end of a prison sentence, before it stops to measure the impact on public safety. On the front end, it increases the number of credits an inmate can receive toward parole. Basically, it would permit some to get parole after serving only a quarter of their sentences.

On the back end, it reduces prison sentences for "non-violent" crimes by as much as half. I can see the sense in making it easier for non-violent offenders to earn parole, but I cannot see the logic in also simultaneously reducing their sentences.

Proponents claim the Justice Reinvestment Act is for "non-violent" offenders only. I respectfully disagree. Pushing heroin and other opioids isn't non-violent. Shooting a person is violent; quietly poisoning them may not draw blood, but the result is the same. Reducing jail time for heroin pushers, during an opioid epidemic, does not send the message heroin pushers need to hear.

Additionally, the bill's prison term reductions for white collar criminals send the wrong message at a time when white collar crime is on the rise and frequently directed toward our most vulnerable citizens. Bernie Madoff, and others like him, would have benefited from legislation like this.

Two examples underscore this point. Prison sentences for conning vulnerable elderly people over the age of 68 has been cut in half. Taking an elderly person's life savings is just as vile and reprehensible as mugging them, because it destroys their retirement and kills their dreams. Identity theft and ATM skimming sentences have also been cut in half. These crimes are on the rise; it makes little sense to reduce their penalties.

Maryland incarceration rates have declined by 15 percent since 2002, as have crime rates across the board. There is no crisis that demands such a sweeping change on both the probationary and sentencing portion of our criminal justice system. Legislative measures to reduce criminal penalties and increase parole opportunities on a crime by crime basis have been working. I've supported many of them, most notably marijuana decriminalization. It makes no sense to act with unjustifiable haste now.

In the '60s and '70s, states across America simultaneously reduced sentences and increased parole for "nonviolent" crimes in the same fashion as the Justice Reinvestment Act. The result was a crime wave that led to mandatory minimum sentences and increased prison sentences. These tougher sentences led to a reduction in crime that has continued since 1991. If we change our sentencing and parole policies now, we should do so thoughtfully, deliberately and incrementally, not with a 250-page bill that throws the baby out with the bath water. And if we are going to increase parole and reduce prison sentences for a multitude of crimes, we should at least measure the impact of these actions between cuts.

The real answer lies somewhere in the middle, which is why many House Republicans joined me in voting against a bill whose sentencing reductions were, for many crimes, too extreme. Justice must balance the punishment with the crime, The safety and security of our families and justice for victims should never be outweighed by the desire to reduce jail time for criminals like heroin pushers to save money. Justice, like freedom, isn't free; but both are worth the price.

Delegate Herb McMillan (herbmcmillan@verizon.net) represents Annapolis in the General Assembly and is an airline captain. The data used in this op-ed were obtained from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

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