- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Democratic lawmakers have answered Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s call to get nonviolent drug offenders out of overcrowded prisons and into treatment programs with a host of bills to repeal mandatory minimum sentences and offer early release to some drug convicts.
Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, Baltimore Democrat, yesterday filed three bills that would de-escalate the drug war in Maryland.
Her proposals would repeal mandatory minimum sentences that are as long as 40 years for some nonviolent drug crimes, make nonviolent drug criminals currently in prison eligible for parole into drug-treatment programs, and use proceeds from a higher tax on alcoholic beverages to pay for substance-abuse treatment.
"We went right to the governor's speech," Ms. Marriott said. "He said there are nonviolent drug offenders in jail who don't need to be in jail. That's what we did with these bills."
The bills were filed with the House clerk yesterday. They were expected to be introduced to the House chamber today and assigned to a committee. Other Democratic bills have already been introduced that would abolish minimum sentences for drug crimes and speed the release of nonviolent drug convicts from prison.
Mr. Ehrlich, who appealed in his State of the State address for treatment instead of imprisonment for petty drug crimes, yesterday said that he supported the concept of the Democratic bills, but would reserve judgment until the General Assembly passed the legislation.
"I'm looking for a multitiered approach to drug crime," Mr. Ehrlich said. He said he envisioned penalties for drug crimes ranging from shorter sentences and court-ordered treatment for small-time drug criminals to long mandatory sentences for drug kingpins, violent drug criminals and drug dealers who use guns.
The prison population burgeoning under mandatory minimum sentences has profound budget implications for a state struggling to close a $1.8 billion shortfall over the next 18 months. Maryland spends about $1 billion a year to keep 25,000 people in prison, about a third of them nonviolent drug offenders.
Other Democratic bills introduced in the Maryland General Assembly would spare addicts and drug users caught up in the dragnet originally intended to snare kingpins with long mandatory prison sentences.
Delegate Pauline H. Menes, Price George's Democrat, introduced a bill to repeal the mandatory minimum sentence law, which precludes parole and does not allow judges to suspend any part of the sentence. The minimum sentences start at 2 years, go to 25 years for a second offense and to 40 years for a three-time loser.
"We've gone through a period where we wanted to be very tough because we thought being tough would stop people from using drugs. It didn't," Mrs. Menes said. "All it did was fill up our jails with drug users, and at quite a price."
A bill by Delegate Curtis Anderson, Baltimore Democrat, would double the number of good-behavior credits available to drug convicts, who now receive the same five credits per month that violent criminals get, while other inmates get 10 credits per month.
Republican National Committee spokesman Dan Ronayne said, "You are seeing an emphasis from Republicans on treatment," adding that Mr. Ehrlich's stance on drug treatment was in line with President Bush's initiative to expand access to faith-based substance-abuse counseling.
In New York, Republican Gov. George E. Pataki has announced his support for reforming the strict Rockefeller Drug Laws, which imposed a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life for possessing or selling more than 2 ounces of illegal drugs. Last year, the bill passed in New York's Democrat-controlled Assembly, but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Republican Gov. Mike Foster of Louisiana signed a law in 2001 that repealed mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Some of those sentences were the toughest in the nation, including life without parole for selling heroin or cocaine. The change is expected to save Louisiana $60 million a year in reduced prison costs.
Also in 2001, Republican Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut signed a law passed by the state's Democrat-controlled General Assembly that gave judges discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug criminals. The measure was intended to reduce prison overcrowding and help stem the prison system's $494 million drain on the budget.
Then-Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, last year signed legislation passed by his Republican-controlled Legislature to end mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

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