In a shift from the "tough on crime" rhetoric of years past, some Maryland lawmakers are questioning whether the state has gone overboard in punishing ex-offenders long after they have paid their dues and returned to the street.
"Restorative justice is the movement we're hearing about," said Del. Brett R. Wilson, a prosecutor and Western Maryland Republican who supports some efforts to help ex-offenders get jobs. "It's gained momentum over the years. There's no doubt about that."
The General Assembly is considering bills that would make it easier for some former offenders to have their records expunged or to at least shield records from potential employers and landlords. Another measure would restore voting rights to felons much sooner than under current law.
Advocates contend that many people have trouble finding jobs and housing decades after arrests — even if they weren't convicted — and that preventing felons from voting makes it more difficult for them to rejoin society.
"You absolutely have people with minor offenses that are coming up for them decades later," said Michelle Rodriguez, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Center. She said about 70 million Americans have criminal records hindering job opportunities.
Diamonte Brown, 33, told delegates that one "idiotic" act by her in 2008 led to a drug-possession charge and probation before judgment. The PBJ followed her around for years, she said, preventing her from getting a job or volunteering in the Baltimore school system despite her master's degree in secondary education. Brown said the best she could do was work the midnight shift at a warehouse store for $9.50 an hour. She wound up applying for food stamps and energy assistance.
"My punishment became a burden on the community," she said. "My punishment became a burden on taxpayers."
Brown said that six years after her trial, she succeeded in getting her record expunged by petitioning the court, and she now works as a literacy instructor at the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. She's also eligible for employment in schools.
Two bills that would expand expungement rights received Judiciary Committee approval last week and go to the House floor this week. One would entitle defendants to apply for quick and cost-free expungements in most cases in which they were acquitted or had all charges dismissed. Another would allow people to seek expungement of long-ago encounters with the law even if they have had a subsequent criminal conviction.
Another expungement bill would make it easier for someone convicted of an act that is no longer a crime to apply to a court to have a record expunged. The measure passed the Senate last week, 41-6. Senate Republicans split 8-6 in favor of the bill, which would have its greatest impact on Marylanders convicted of possession of small amounts of marijuana before decriminalization.
The right to vote is an issue for Perry Hopkins, who spent nearly 20 years in prison. The 53-year-old African-American from Baltimore told a Senate committee he could not vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 because he was still on probation.
Hopkins, who described himself as a "community organizer in training," asked lawmakers to restore voting rights to felons upon release from prison. Current law requires offenders to complete parole or probation to vote.
"It was this law made me a witness of history rather than a participant in history," Hopkins said. Voting, he told senators, is "an important part of the re-entry process."
Two of the committee's four Republicans joined all its Democrats in approving the bill last week. The legislation is pending on the Senate floor.
Last year, all three major Democratic candidates for governor ran on platforms that called for efforts to ease re-entry for released prisoners. A spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said the governor was monitoring the progress of the restorative-justice bills in the legislature.
"Matters such as expungement and the shielding of criminal records deserve very careful consideration," Hogan's spokesman, Doug Mayer, said.
Other states also are re-thinking their approach to former offenders. Since 2009, 23 states and the District of Columbia have enacted 37 laws making it easier to expunge or shield records, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit think tank focused on criminal-justice issues. Rodriguez said such laws have passed with bipartisan support in both red and blue states.
Not everybody is comfortable with efforts to lessen the impact of incarceration.
Del. John W. E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who is a former police sergeant, rued an attitude that is "less tough on crime, more tough on police officers."
"It's getting worse and worse with 'Let's get the bad guys out of jail and expunge their records,'" he said. "When you do your crime, there's got to be some accountability, and we're going in the opposite direction."
But some elected officials of both parties are finding common ground in questioning whether Maryland is making re-entry into society too difficult.
The issue is especially important to many families in Baltimore, where every year about 6,000 released prisoners return, roughly half the state's total. A city law aimed at helping former offenders find work requires many employers to wait to ask about a job candidate's criminal history until a conditional offer has been extended.
Proposals in Annapolis to make easier to expunge records face hurdles because many lawmakers are reluctant to keep such information from employers who may have legitimate concerns.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, singled out as "excellent" a shielding proposal by Sen. Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County. Raskin's Second Chance Bill of 2015 would allow people convicted of certain nonviolent offenses to ask a court to shield their records.
The measure would allow a court to shield arrest and court records three to five years after an offender has completed a sentence, including parole or probation. If the court agreed, the information would be closed to public inspection but still available to law enforcement, health licensing boards and employers that are legally required to perform criminal background checks.
Among the offenses eligible for shielding would be prostitution, drug possession, driving without a license, disturbing the peace and misdemeanor theft. The waiting period on theft is set at five years and the others at three.
Wilson, the Western Maryland delegate, said one of the concerns driving the shielding debate is that court records are now posted on the Maryland Judiciary Case Search web site. Where people once had to go to the courthouse to check someone's record, now "it's available to everyone online for free," Wilson said. "Cleaning that up is a good idea."
The shielding measure, approved by Zirkin's committee on a bipartisan 9-1 vote, has a better chance for passage than some others because it has the support of the Maryland State's Attorney's Association. The association opposes most bills making it easier to expunge old charges.
Steven Kroll, the group's executive director, said he believes in second chances. But while the shielding measure is the result of a task force that included representatives of multiple stakeholders, he said, the expungement bills are not. He said they should go through the same process.
The two expungement bills approved by the House panel last week were proposed by Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who has been advocating such legislation for more than a decade.
"I think we're finally making progress after a long time," Carter said.