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'Justice reinvestment' bill hits speed bump in Annapolis

The effort to reform Maryland's justice system by reducing prison populations and spending more  money on crime fighting and drug treatment has hit a speed bump in the General Assembly.

A state Senate committee has changed the bill so much that some advocates and lawmakers are having second thoughts about whether it is worthwhile.

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"The impact is almost zero," said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, which has been advocating for the reforms, known as "justice reinvestment."

The goal of justice reinvestment is to put fewer people in prison for shorter amounts of time, and instead focus on preventing crime in the first place and to prevent criminals from re-offending.

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Maryland's top Democratic leaders submitted a lengthy, complex bill aimed at achieving those goals, with many of the bill's provisions reflecting recommendations from a Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council that's been reviewing the issue.

But the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee made changes that advocates say reduces the savings in the bill.

"You're talking about going from a savings of about $250 million over 10 years to $34 million over 10 years and as importantly, almost no change to the prison population," Schindler said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller also expressed concerns about the revised bill. Addressing the full Senate, Miller said it's important that the bill results in significant savings.

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"We're going to have to look at the bill carefully," he said.

Senators began debating the bill on Monday night and planned to resume on Wednesday, at the request of the Legislative Black Caucus, which wanted time to review the bill.

Among the bill's many provisions, it included what amounts to automatic parole for nonviolent offenders once they reach certain milestones in prison, rather than having to wait for a parole board to review their status. The Judicial Proceedings Committee scaled back that provision only to apply to nonviolent offenders who are at low risk of landing back in jail.

The bill also sets up a system to punish parole violators with lesser penalties, such as a couple of weeks in jail, instead of sending them back to prison for a long term for a violation like a failed drug test. The Judicial Proceedings Committee added leeway for judges to not adhere to the lesser penalties in instances of a public safety threat or other "good cause."

Also, the committee added increased sentences for second-degree murder and kidnapping, which were not in the original bill.

Added up, those changes mean that there might not be fewer people in prison after all, Schindler said.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said it's difficult to determine a financial impact of the changes. He said the changes his committee made were to ensure public safety.

"We will not do anything in this bill, if I can help it, that will endanger the public," he said.

The House of Delegates also is considering the bill but hasn't yet taken any votes.

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