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Maryland legislative roundup, courts and crime edition; Baltimore Sun editorial board weighs in on new bills

At the Penn North intersection, Communities United set up a table where ex-offenders and others could register to vote. Trina Ashley, left, helps Da'Shai Williams, -- who says she is a former felon -- fill out a voter registration form. Proposed legislation would require registration forms be given to inmates as they leave prison.
At the Penn North intersection, Communities United set up a table where ex-offenders and others could register to vote. Trina Ashley, left, helps Da'Shai Williams, -- who says she is a former felon -- fill out a voter registration form. Proposed legislation would require registration forms be given to inmates as they leave prison. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Among the crime, court and convict issues being debated by legislators this session are whether to repeal sodomy laws, automatically expunge pot possession convictions or take the governor out of certain parole decisions. Here’s what we think on those matters and others.

H.B. 51/S.B. 91: Individuals Released From Correctional Facilities - Voter Registration

Sponsors: Del. J. Sandy Bartlett, an Anne Arundel County Democrat; and Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat

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Synopsis: Requires a correctional facility to provide inmates finishing up terms for felony convictions with voter registration forms before release and to inform them of their voting rights post incarceration.

Analysis: Those who’ve been convicted of a felony and are serving a court-ordered sentence aren’t eligible to be registered voters. This effort would remind them of their reinstated right — and obligation — upon release and offer a bit of dignity and “welcome back” to the community at the same time. A fiscal and policy note attached to the bill suggests it would be onerous for prison staff to figure out which are the felony convictions and which aren’t, so we suggest the bill be amended to require the forms be handed out to all for simplicity’s sake and to sweep up others who’ve never registered. It will cost about $2,000 per year, a small price to pay for reminding people of their rights and roles in our democracy.

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Editorial board recommendation: Pass with amendment.

H.B. 83: Automatic Expungement - Possession of Marijuana

Sponsors: Democratic Delegates David Moon, Lorig Charkoudian, Charlotte Crutchfield, Marc Korman and Julie Palakovich Carr (Montgomery County), J. Sandy Bartlett (Anne Arundel County), Mary A. Lehman (Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties) and Jazz Lewis (Prince George’s County).

Synopsis: Automatically expunges legal records related to marijuana possession before Oct. 1 of this year, when the law would take effect, on a tiered basis through 2028; cases in which possession is the only charge would be cleared first. Incidents occurring after October would be expunged roughly four years from when the case concludes.

Analysis: In 2014, Maryland decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it a civil, rather than criminal, offense to have 10 grams or less of the drug. It was a recognition that more people view recreational marijuana use as acceptable these days and not worthy of a criminal record that could hurt employment and educational opportunities. It was also an effort to address the massive racial disparities in arrests: Black people were (and are) targeted at an alarmingly higher rate than white people despite similar usage habits. Possession of more than 10 grams is still a misdemeanor, though the number of arrests and prosecutions are shrinking as we move toward eventual legalization of recreational marijuana. Both the civil citations and criminal convictions for possession are eligible for expungement under Maryland law, but individuals must file paperwork and pay a filing fee to initiate the process. This bill would eliminate the paperwork and fee, and is in keeping with current thinking regarding marijuana. If the state no longer considers this behavior a crime, the state should seek to remove it from a person’s record.

Editorial board recommendation: Pass.

H.B. 81: Sodomy and Unnatural or Perverted Sexual Practice - Repeal

Sponsors: Democratic Delegates David Moon, Lorig Charkoudian, Charlotte Crutchfield, Marc Korman and Julie Palakovich Carr (Montgomery County), Del. J. Sandy Bartlett (Anne Arundel County), Del. Mary A. Lehman (Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties) and Del. Jazz Lewis (Prince George’s County).

Synopsis: Repeals criminal laws against sodomy and so-called “unnatural or perverted sexual practice.”

Analysis: Anti-sodomy laws across the country originally targeted heterosexual sex that wasn’t part of procreation. But in the ‘70s, they were aimed specifically at gay people as justification for denying their parental rights, firing them and discrediting LGBT voices, according to an ACLU explainer. Maryland allows for up to 10 years in prison and a $1,000 fine upon criminal conviction for various acts, including beastiality. According to a fiscal and policy note accompanying the repeal bill, more than 300 violations were filed in state courts in fiscal year 2019, and 15 people were sentenced. The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services also said seven inmates were sentenced for offenses. Setting the intimate relations with animals aside (we dearly hope that’s covered under animal abuse laws), there is no reason for the state to criminalize sexual acts between consenting adults. It’s shameful this law is still on the books and in use.

Editorial board recommendation: Pass.

H.B. 300: Life Imprisonment - Parole Reform

Sponsors: Democratic Delegates: Gabriel Acevero, Lorig Charkoudian, Marc Korman, Sara Love, Pam Queen, Jared Solomon, Jheanelle K. Wilkins (Montgomery County); Regina T. Boyce, Nick Mosby, Stephanie Smith, Melissa Wells (Baltimore City); Shelly Hettleman (Baltimore County); Wanika Fisher, Julian Ivey, Jazz Lewis, Veronica Turner, Kriselda Valderrama (Prince George’s County); Debra Davis, Edith J. Patterson (Charles County); J. Sandy Bartlett (Anne Arundel County); Susie Proctor (Charles and Prince George’s counties).

Synopsis: Allows inmates serving a life sentence to be paroled after serving 30 full years, if the appropriate review board recommends it, without the governor’s approval.

Analysis: In Maryland, the governor’s approval is required to parole any person sentenced to life in prison, even if the Maryland Parole Commission strongly recommends release. This bill would still require governor approval to grant parole to inmates who’ve served less than 30 years, but it would remove the criteria for those serving 30 years or more who’ve been recommended for release. A fiscal and policy note from last session, when the bill was also introduced, says “general fund incarceration expenditures may decrease significantly as a result of the bill’s changes.” That’s because governors are reluctant to grant parole; it gets them few political points. Last year, Gov. Hogan was courageous enough to grant the release of three men sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as minors, after they’d served a collective 88 years behind bars. But he was the first governor in two dozen years to do so, since William Donald Schaefer was in office. Parole shouldn’t be so politicized. If an inmate is deemed ready for release, he or she should be let go without the added consideration from the governor. Maryland is one of only three states that requires governor approval. We should join the majority and get rid of the rule altogether. The 30-year mark is arbitrary. But it’s a start.

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Editorial board recommendation: Pass.

H.B. 242/S.B. 206: Motion to Vacate Judgment — Human Trafficking

Sponsors: Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat. Democratic senators: Susan C. Lee, Cheryl C. Kagan, Nancy J. King, Benjamin F. Kramer, William C. Smith Jr., Jeff Waldstreicher and Craig J. Zucker (Montgomery County); Jill P. Carter, Cory V. McCray (Baltimore City); Sarah K. Elfreth (Anne Arundel County); Arthur Ellis (Charles County); Guy Guzzone (Howard County); Katie Fry Hester (Carroll and Howard counties); Delores G. Kelley, Katherine Klausmeier (Baltimore County); Clarence K. Lam (Baltimore and Howard counties); Obie Patterson, Paul G. Pinsky (Prince George’s County); Charles E. Sydnor III (Baltimore city and county) and Ronald N. Young (Frederick County). Republican Sen. Chris West (Baltimore County).

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Synopsis: This bill expands beyond prostitution the kinds of offenses a person may file to have vacated from his or her record if their role in the offense “was a direct result of being a victim of human trafficking.” It also removes a requirement that a state’s attorney consent to the filing beforehand.

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Analysis: Victims of human trafficking may not be in control of their actions and could be made to engage in any number of offenses by their captors, including prostitution, but also trespassing, theft, public assistance fraud and lying to police, among other crimes. To have a judgment vacated against them, the filer would need to present evidence of the human trafficking and convince a court. They deserve the change to meet that standard.

Editorial board recommendation: Pass.

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