- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2016

ANNAPOLIS — Despite mixed feelings over a sweeping criminal justice reform bill, the Maryland Senate unanimously approved the legislation, which lawmakers said ultimately “moves the state forward.”

After the 46-0 Senate vote, the bill was sent to the House of Delegates for approval.

The “justice reinvestment” bill would address multiple parts of the state’s criminal justice system, including treating drug possession as addiction, recommending treatment instead of prison and eliminating certain mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession. It also would increase the types of convictions that can be expunged from records, revamp how judges send people back to jail for technical parole violations and eliminate disparities between punishments for possession of crack and powder cocaine.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have worked on the reforms for months and touted the measure as “historic.”

But the bill has stumbled multiple times in the past week, and votes on it were delayed as lawmakers became concerned that the legislation was too heavily edited, wouldn’t save the state enough money and would not address certain key reforms.

“I certainly have very mixed feelings about the passage of this bill because I think in some ways we go backwards,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., Montgomery Democrat. “I’m going to be casting a green vote for it in the hopes of better once it comes back from the House, or better as we move forward. But this is a small step when many people had hoped for a big step.”

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, Baltimore County Democrat, said she would vote for the bill, but “despite all the hard work [the Judicial Proceedings Committee has] done, not all of it was smart.”

Justice reinvestment is predicated on the idea that reducing the state’s prison population will save money that can be used in alternative methods of community policing and rehabilitation. Lawmakers argued that amendments to the bill cut potential savings and wouldn’t significantly decrease the number of prisoners.

Last week, the Pew Charitable Trusts, which worked with lawmakers on the measure, said amendments would reduce savings from a projected $250 million over 10 years to about $34 million.

“Ninety percent of this bill is great,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Calvert Democrat, adding that further changes “could make all of our constituent groups happy.”

Some senators said the bill covers so many aspects of the criminal justice system that they had to swallow their disdain for certain provisions in it.

Sen. James Brochin, a conservative Baltimore County Democrat, said the bill would raise the felony theft threshold level from $1,000 to $2,000, which gives him “incredible heartburn.” Still, he said the legislation “has a balance to it that really is amazing.”

Lawmakers also were concerned about how the courts treat parole violators. The original bill would have directed judges to sentence parole violators to 15 days in jail for a first violation, 30 days for a second and 45 days for a third. The amended bill erased those caps, allowing judges to give longer sentences to violators whom they deem to be a public safety risk.

Many senators lauded Sens. Robert A. Zirkin, Baltimore County Democrat, and Michael J. Hough, Frederick Republican, for working to balance everybody’s priorities in the Judicial Proceedings Committee, chaired by Mr. Zirkin.

“I know everyone may not have gotten what they want,” Mr. Hough said. “This compromise in front of you is the largest reform of the criminal justice system in a generation that has passed in Maryland.”

The House has plans for significant changes, and the bill is likely to be alerted in a conference committee.

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