The House of Delegates voted Monday night to drop the state's 10-year mandatory term for a second conviction for dealing drugs, deciding to give trial judges the discretion to set the sentence.
The 85-55 vote followed a sharp debate during which lawmakers questioned the wisdom of easing sentences at a time when Maryland has seen a large increase in heroin overdose deaths.
Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Baltimore County Republican, urged colleagues to think back to the last election when they went door-to-door to talk with voters. How many came to the door and said "We want more drug dealers in our community?" he asked.
Del. Curt Anderson, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill, said his prime motivation was to restore discretion to judges because they best know the facts of the individual case.
"It should not be a one-size-fits-all sentence," he said.
Anderson noted that the bill had been amended last week so that it would not apply to third or subsequent convictions. He said mandatory sentences would remain in the law for high-volume dealers, kingpins and manufactures of illegal drugs. He said other states had moved away from mandatory minimums for drug dealers and had seen savings on their prison systems.
Del Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, argued that the bill would weaken the bargaining power of prosecutors trying to turn low-level dealers into witnesses against larger distributors.
That logic was disputed by Del. C. T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat who said that in his years as a prosecutor, he had never found the mandatory minimums useful in such cases.
"Locking people up for this doesn't make a difference," he said.
The bill now goes to the state Senate.