Annapolis needs to take a time-out on Hogan-Zirkin crime bill

The crime bill that’s headed to the floor of the state Senate is dividing the people who worked together on Maryland’s landmark Justice Reinvestment Act of 2016. Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Catherine Pugh have praised the effort of Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Bobby Zirkin to incorporate some version of the governor’s ideas for sentencing while also securing funding for key anti-violence initiatives. But others who worked on the reform effort two years ago complain that the bill represents a backtracking on that legislation and will do nothing to make communities safer in the long run.

It amazes us that any of them can have much of an opinion on what the bill would do since, at this point, it would take an advanced degree in legislative draftsmanship to tell what it says.

The process by which Senate Bill 122 came out of committee was not exactly textbook how-a-bill-becomes-a-law. Rather, it is Franken-legislation, a mish-mash of proposals stitched together on another tangentially related bill. The original SB 122, the one for which legislators held a hearing on Jan. 25, was called “Criminal Law-Obstructing Justice-Penalties.” It was four pages long and increased sentences for false testimony or avoiding a subpoena. The one that is headed for the floor has been written through with 47 pages of amendments dealing with penalties for various gun crimes, funding for Safe Streets and other anti-crime initiatives and a host of other things including the state’s right to appeal judges’ decisions to exclude evidence in cases involving alleged violent crime under certain circumstances and procedures for seeking immigration protections for non-citizens who are victims of crime.

Maybe it all adds up to good public policy, and maybe not. But the process stands in real contrast to the one that led to the Justice Reinvestment Act. That legislation reflected both a sophisticated outside analysis of data related to Maryland’s criminal justice system and months of meetings between stakeholders on all sides of the issue. This legislation was crafted by veterans of that process in the legislature and the Hogan administration, and its individual components come from other bills that have been subject to hearings. But groups like the Job Opportunities Task Force, the Maryland Public Defender’s Office and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle point out that until now the policies haven’t been combined, and their cumulative effect haven’t been analyzed. Their concerns deserve to be heard.

We appreciate the efforts by Senator Zirkin and other committee members to round the edges off the governor’s initial tough-on-crime proposals, for example by rejecting certain mandatory minimum sentences and “truth in sentencing” provisions Mr. Hogan favored. Judges and prosecutors should indeed have discretion to make decisions based on individual cases and circumstances. And Senator Zirkin’s ability to forge a bipartisan consensus behind extra funding for Safe Streets, witness protection and other programs is truly an important advance. We shouldn’t have to be begging annually for money for programs that work. But the legislation remains focused on the notion that we can incarcerate our way out of crime, when experience has shown us that approach does not solve all problems and can come with great fiscal and social costs.

The advocates’ argument, and one that animated the Justice Reinvestment Act, is that the best investment when it comes to cutting violent crime is in orienting our prison system more toward rehabilitation and improving re-entry services. Increasing penalties for violent repeat offenders doesn’t necessarily contradict that philosophy, but focusing primarily on that aspect of the system ignores a couple of other things. First, new penalties today do nothing to address the large numbers of people released every year into crime-plagued Baltimore communities with no viable way to support themselves. And second, virtually all of those we sentence today to longer prison terms will get out eventually, and absent effective interventions behind bars or upon release, many of them will perpetuate the cycle of crime and violence rather than break it.

If this legislation passes the Senate, we hope and expect that the House Judiciary Committee will take time to evaluate the totality of its potential effects and to ensure that its penalty provisions truly are “laser focused,” in Senator Zirkin’s words, on violent repeat offenders. The committee also needs to hear from those who don’t primarily view the crime issue through the lens of sentences and incarceration both as a matter of balance and to ensure that all the most effective ideas make it into the final product.

Everyone involved in this debate has the same goal: to make Baltimore and the rest of Maryland’s communities safer. Let’s consider Senator Zirkin’s work as a strong first draft and slow down to make sure all voices are heard and all consequences considered before we write a final one.

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