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Maryland House advances justice reinvestment, sick leave bills

Maryland's House of Delegates on Friday advanced a sweeping bill that revamps the criminal justice system, favoring drug treatment over incarceration.

The Justice Reinvestment Act now moves to a final vote in the House next week. The state Senate already approved a version of the bill, but it differs significantly from the House version, so the differences will ultimately be addressed in a conference committee.

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Both versions would put more low-level drug offenders into treatment, not jail; allow more people to expunge convictions from their records; let some offenders out sooner; and reduce the time that parole violators spend behind bars.

The term "reinvestment" refers to the goal of saving money by incarcerating fewer people and plowing the money into drug treatment and crime prevention.

A Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council has been working on the issue for the past year and Gov. Larry Hogan has signaled his support for the bill, which has attracted bipartisan support.

During about 90 minutes of debate Friday, delegates made a key change to their version of the bill, increasing the maximum sentence for child abuse that results in death to life in prison for killing a young child and up to 40 years in prison for killing a teenager.

The increased sentence is known as Justice's Law and failed in committee this year. It's named for 4-month-old Justice Christopher Calvin Myers-Cannon, who was shaken to death in Washington County in 2007, according to the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.

Del. C.T. Wilson, a former prosecutor from Charles County, and Del. Brett Wilson, a prosecutor from Washington County, made emotional appeals to their colleagues, reciting the gruesome stories of Justice and other children who were shaken or beaten to death, often by caregivers.

When the vote was tallied, the Justice's Law amendment had 72 votes -- exactly enough votes to pass in the 141-member chamber. A short while later, however, there was a flurry of action on the House floor as dozens of lawmakers changed their votes to be recorded as voting in favor of the amendment.

It's not clear, however, whether Justice's Law or scores of other features of the House bill will be included in the final version of the bill.

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The House version includes several details that are different from the Senate version, including: incorporating an anti-gang racketeering statute championed by Hogan, different details on when judges can opt out of caps on sentences for parole violators, allowing inmates as young as 60 to seek geriatric parole and removing more mandatory minimum sentences.

The House version does not include lengthening the maximum sentences for kidnapping and second-degree murder, which were added to the Senate version at the behest of prosecutors.

In addition to moving forward the justice reinvestment bill, delegates also gave preliminary approval to a bill requiring companies to allow their employees to earn sick leave.

Under the bill, companies with 15 or more workers would have to offer paid sick leave, while smaller companies would have to offer unpaid leave. Companies with plans that are at least as generous as the state law would not be required to make any changes.

During 90 minutes of debate, delegates defeated several proposed amendments, setting the bill up for a final vote next week. More than half of the members of the House of Delegates are cosponsors of the bill.

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