The House of Delegates approved a broad overhaul of Maryland's criminal justice system Monday, setting up negotiations with the state Senate over a version it passed last month.
The Justice Reinvestment Act, which seeks to improve public safety while reducing the state's prison population, passed the House with bipartisan support on a 105-31 vote. The Senate approved its version 46-0.
The bill would put more low-level drug offenders into treatment instead of prison, release some offenders sooner and reduce the time that parole violators spend behind bars, among other things.
Considered one of the most consequential bills of the 2016 General Assembly session, the measure is the product of almost a year of study and debate by the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council and legislative committees. The effort has the backing of Democratic leaders in the legislature and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who appointed a high-level aide to chair the council, which made recommendations to lawmakers.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch called the measure a "game-changer" for the criminal justice system. Busch, who said he remembers when lawmakers passed increasingly harsh anti-crime legislation in the 1980s, praised the bill's emphasis on shifting spending from incarceration to drug treatment.
"In hindsight, what we tried to do didn't work," he said. "It didn't slow down the sale of drugs and the addiction to drugs."
Advocates for criminal justice reform applauded the House version of the bill.
"It was a very open, transparent, collaborative process," said Caryn York, senior policy associate for the Job Opportunities Task Force.
York and other activists — along with the Legislative Black Caucus — were dismayed when the Senate passed legislation that they say would result in less savings and a smaller drop in the prison population than previously expected.
Now they're hoping a conference committee of senators and delegates, which must hammer out a compromise before the legislature ends its 90-day session next Monday, agrees to a bill closer to the House version.
The House bill would cut maximum sentences for low-level drug dealers while adopting a state version of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to aggressively go after higher-level drug traffickers in gangs.
The legislation would also change Maryland's strategy for dealing with parole violators, adopting a set of graduated sanctions in place of an immediate return to prison.
Three House Democrats joined 28 Republicans in opposing the bill.
Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, objected to lower sentences for nonviolent drug dealers.
"Pushing heroin and other opioids isn't nonviolent. Shooting a person is violent; quietly poisoning them may not draw blood, but the result is the same," he said. "Reducing jail time for heroin pushers, during an opioid epidemic, does not send the message heroin pushers need to hear."
Del. Brett Wilson, a Washington County Republican and prosecutor, pointed to reasons to support the bill.
"If we can get people off drugs, we will reduce crime," Wilson said. "This helps us to fight the true battle on drugs."
Del. Jay Walker of Prince George's County, one of the three Democrats who opposed the bill, said Maryland's approach to drug-dealing is getting "softer and softer and softer."
"There's no such thing as a low-level drug dealer. You either deal drugs or you don't," he said.
Del. Erek Barron, also a Prince George's Democrat, said the legislation he called the "Smart on Crime Act" was based on hard evidence and decades of research.
"The Smart on Crime Act is not doing the same thing over and over and over and expecting a different result," Barron said.
York said the House version is superior because it retains more of the recommendations made by the council, which brought together a broad group including police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates through last summer and fall.
Advocates of the overhaul say the Senate backed off some of the council's recommendations on dropping mandatory sentences and on speeding parole decisions. York said they also object to a Senate provision raising the maximum sentence for second-degree murder — killing without premeditation — from 30 to 40 years.