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Criminal justice reform bill passes Maryland Senate, moves to House

Maryland Senate OKs sweeping reforms to criminal justice system.

With support from conflicted lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the state Senate voted unanimously to approve legislation Thursday that would enact sweeping changes to Maryland's criminal justice system.

The bill would push more low-level drug offenders into treatment instead of prison, allow more people to expunge convictions from their records, let some offenders out sooner and reduce the time that parole violators spend behind bars.

While there was broad support from Republicans and Democrats for the concept, several members of both parties expressed concerns. Some advocates of criminal justice reform have said changes made in committee would result in less savings and a smaller drop in the prison population than previously estimated.

"Ninety percent of this bill is great," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he had "incredible heartburn" about parts of the bill that would allow more people to have convictions wiped off of their records. But on the whole, he said, the bill has an amazing balance that works toward the greater good of taking a modern approach to criminal justice.

"This is the version that can bring us together and move the state forward," Brochin said.

Several senators praised Democratic Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin and Republican Sen. Michael J. Hough for working out compromises in the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which Zirkin chairs.

"I know everyone may not have gotten what they want," said Hough, who represents parts of Carroll and Frederick counties, but he said the bill still represents "the largest reform of the criminal justice system in a generation."

Zirkin, of Baltimore County, defended the committee amendments — notably offering automatic parole to fewer offenders and giving judges discretion on whether to give parole violators shorter sentences — as necessary for public safety.

Gov. Larry Hogan said he was "thrilled" that the bill cleared the Senate. He said Chris Shank, director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, has been working tirelessly for months on the issue.

"It was a compromise bill that really brought together all the stakeholders from every aspect of this. It accomplishes a lot of things for a lot of people. ... It's something that we've worked on in a bipartisan fashion, and we've found common ground with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans," Hogan said in an interview Thursday.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that while the justice reinvestment bill is ambitious, it represents just one step in a long path to reforming the state's justice system. In recent years, lawmakers abolished the death penalty in Maryland and passed the Second Chance Act, which allows people to shield certain criminal convictions from public view.

"It doesn't begin with this bill and it doesn't end with this bill," he said.

Raskin compared the bill to trying to change the direction of a large ship, in which the captain must be careful in his maneuvers so as to not go too far to one side or the other. He said members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee "struck a very fine balance."

Sen. Wayne Norman, a Republican from Harford and Cecil counties on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said there was a lot of "give-and-take" on details of the bill.

After the 46-0 vote in the Senate, which was met with light applause, the bill moves to the House of Delegates for consideration. Some senators said they hope their concerns can be addressed by the House or in a joint House-Senate conference committee.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, said he voted for the bill "in the hopes it can be something better when it comes back from the House."

Advocates for criminal justice reform also are hoping a different version emerges from the House — one with more mandatory minimum sentences removed, removing jail time for driving without a license and allowing more offenders to qualify for automatic parole.

"The Senate missed an opportunity," said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute.

pwood@baltsun.com

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