The Maryland Senate is poised to take a final vote Thursday on a sweeping bill that aims to reduce prison populations in order to save money for crime prevention and drug treatment.
Under a concept known as "justice reinvestment," the bill tackles dozens of changes to the state's criminal justice system. Sentences for some crimes would be shorter, some inmates could be released earlier and drug users who end up in court for minor crimes would be more often sent to treatment, not jail.
The bill amounts to a "right-sizing" of the criminal justice system, said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Justice reinvestment has been debated for months by officials who want to address concerns that locking people away for years isn't always the best way to combat crime, especially in cases when criminal activity is being driven by drug addiction.
But some have said the Senate committee revised the bill too much, and it won't save as much money as previously thought.
The Pew Charitable Trusts said the original bill would have saved about $250 million over 10 years. That assessment was revised to $34 million over 10 years after the Senate committee made changes to the bill.
One of the Senate's changes includes reducing the number of inmates who would be eligible for automatic parole when they serve 25 percent of their sentences.
Another change would give judges the leeway to ignore new, shorter sentencing guidelines for parole violators if that parolee is deemed a threat to public safety.
The Senate committee also inserted into the bill increased sentences for second-degree murder and kidnapping. The maximum sentences for both crimes would be increased from 30 years in prison to 40 years in prison.
Zirkin defended his committee's changes, saying they were necessary to protect the public. The original bill went too far in reducing sentences and releasing prisoners, he said.
"This bill is an amazing piece of legislation ... I would never vote for a bill that puts people's lives at risk," he said.
Zirkin said he expects the bill to pass the Senate after hearty debate.
The Legislative Black Caucus has hinted it has concerns about the Senate version of the bill, but members have not offered details.
The Senate's debate on the bill was postponed Monday at the request of Sen. Joanne Benson, a Prince George's County Democrat, who said the black caucus wanted to discuss the matter at its meeting Wednesday morning.
The meeting was held behind closed doors, and when members emerged, they deflected questions from reporters about their discussion.
Del. Barbara Robinson, a Baltimore City Democrat who chairs the caucus, would only say: "We have some things that we are going to do, but I'd rather not say right now."
The justice reinvestment bill was given preliminary approval in the Senate later on Wednesday without any debate. That sets the bill up for a final Senate vote on Thursday.
The House of Delegates also has been discussing justice reinvestment, but has not yet voted on the bill.
Reforming the criminal justice system has been declared a priority by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. The Governor's Office on Crime Control and Prevention also has been working on the issue, making it likely that some version of the bill will be approved.
Miller predicted the matter would end up in a House-Senate conference committee.
"We'd like to lower the criminal population, but make certain that we're doing the right thing ... It does have laudable goals and I think we can enhance those goals so we can move forward on the bill," Miller said.