Maryland lawmakers are poised to vote on sweeping reforms to the state's criminal justice system in the final hours of their annual legislative session on Monday.
The Justice Reinvestment Act will push more low-level drug offenders into treatment, create an easier path for some inmates to be released sooner, limit the amount of time parole violators spend behind bars, remove some mandatory minimum sentences and allow people to expunge more convictions from their criminal record.
At the same time, the act also will create tougher sentences for second-degree murder and abuse that results in a child's death, and add a racketeering statute that could be used to prosecute gang members who distribute drugs.
Altogether, the series of changes is designed to reduce the prison population and save money that can be plowed into drug treatment and programs that keep people from landing back in jail.
"It's a groundbreaking bill," said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who helped lead several hours of intense negotiations over the bill on Saturday.
The House of Delegates and the state Senate passed versions of the bill that differed significantly on some details, though both versions kept many of the core features of the bill.
To iron out the differences, five senators and five delegates were named to a conference committee. They met for several hours Saturday in an out-of-the-way conference room in a locked state office building in Annapolis, at times going line-by-line over details in the bill.
Twice, the negotiations broke down and the delegates and senators met behind closed doors in separate rooms to plot strategy. At one point, Chris Shank, the governor's top aide on criminal justice, shuttled between the two groups to move negotiations along.
In the end, lawmakers reached compromises on several thorny issues. And while they weren't happy with some details, they backed the final product.
"It's not possible to like everything in a bill of this magnitude ... It tackles issues all over the criminal justice system," Zirkin said.
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who led the team of House negotiators, said the final bill is a "fabulous bill." Still, she expects lawmakers to revisit many criminal justice issues next year.
"There's still a lot of work to do," she said.
Key provisions of the bill include:
- Low-level drug offenders will be more likely to be sentenced to treatment instead of jail time
- When offenders are sentenced to treatment, the state will have to make sure spots are available sooner, so offenders don't get stuck in jail waiting for a treatment bed to open up.
- Inmates convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, theft and writing bad checks will have a simpler path to seeking parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence.
- Mandatory minimum sentences for dealing drugs, manufacturing drugs and writing bogus prescriptions are eliminated. Maximum sentences would be 20 years for first and second offenses, 25 years for a third offense and 40 years for a fourth offense.
- The maximum sentence for misdemeanor theft is reduced from one year to six months.
- Inmates can seek geriatric parole at age 60 instead of age 65. They must have served at least 15 years of their sentence.
- Jail time is no longer a possibility for driving on a suspended license.
- People on parole and probation who commit minor violations, such as failing a drug test, would face minor sanctions before jail time. Jail time for those found guilty in court of a parole violation would start at 15 days for the first offense. Judges have an option to impose longer sentences in cases where public safety would be at risk.
- The maximum sentence for second-degree murder would be increased from 30 years to 40 years.
- The maximum sentence for abuse that results in the death of a child would be life in prison for killing a young child and up to 40 years in prison for killing a teenager, known as "Justice's Law."
- A racketeering statute would be added to state law to give police and prosecutors another option for going after gang members who deal drugs.
The concept of justice reinvestment has won broad support from Democrats and Republicans alike, and also has been a focus for Gov. Larry Hogan.
While the governor's office still must review the details of the final justice reinvestment bill, Shank said he was pleased to see a bipartisan compromise.
"I think we have a bill we can be proud of," he said.
The bill represents a shift in thinking from being "tough on crime" to being "smart on crime," Shank said. Past attempts at cracking down on crime with harsh sentences have only resulted in an expensive prison system and continued unacceptable levels of violent crime, he said.
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Shank chaired a Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council that met over the past year to discuss options for making criminal justice reforms. Many of the council's recommendations formed the initial bill that lawmakers considered.
"It's a sea change that has been contemplated in this bill," Shank said.
Experts from all sides of the justice system were part of the coordinating council and the negotiations on the Justice Reinvestment Act. As the conference committee met late into Saturday night, their work was observed by prosecutors, public defenders, state agency representatives and advocates for criminal justice reform.
The conference committee negotiators were working against a self-imposed deadline of Saturday night. They needed to reach their agreements so that they could officially be written in legal language by drafters in the Department of Legislative Services by Monday.
Still, there won't be enough time for drafters to do an entire rewrite of the bill for lawmakers to read on Monday when they take their final vote.
Dumais said she has "a little concern" about not having a clean version of the compromise bill -- which will be more than 100 pages long -- for lawmakers to review. She said she'll have to dedicate time to carefully explain all of the provisions of the bill on the House floor on Monday. She believes the bill will win support because it represents "a huge step forward."
The annual 90-day General Assembly session concludes at midnight Monday.