- - Wednesday, May 20, 2015

In the waning days of Maryland’s legislative session, casual observers were probably surprised to see a freshman, conservative Republican from Western Maryland leading the fight on the Senate floor to reform our state’s harsh mandatory minimum laws. In fact, I was joined by a majority of Republicans in the Senate in voting for this important reform.

Just as society is ill-served when a violent offender receives a light sentence, we should also acknowledge we are ill-served when people are punished too harshly. Criminal sentences should match the crime. That’s why it’s time for Maryland to reform our one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to drug crimes and address the often unjust consequences that arise from mandatory minimum sentences.

Maryland House Bill 121, as passed by the Senate, establishes a “safety valve” with which judges can depart from mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders. Currently in Maryland, a person convicted a second time for dealing drugs receives a mandatory 10-year prison sentence; a third conviction earns an offender a 25-year mandatory prison sentence.

Under our bill, a judge can depart from the mandatory minimum sentence in drug cases when the imposition of the sentence would “result in a substantial injustice to the defendant and the imposition of the mandatory minimum sentence is unnecessary for the protection of the public.”

The bill also increases drug treatment for those in prison and calls for any savings from decreased incarceration to go back into drug treatment. Finally, the bill exempts drug kingpins and those who deal drugs on school grounds from qualifying for the safety valve.

Dealing drugs is a serious offense, which is why the Senate opted to leave in place mandatory minimum penalties and did not lower maximum sentences. Rather, the legislation simply allows judges to impose a lesser sentence, in certain cases, should they choose to do so.

Prosecutors often use mandatory minimum sentences as leverage to persuade a drug dealer to take a plea bargain and become an informant, which translates into a lighter sentence. Unfortunately, this means more serious offenders, who typically have more information to exchange with law enforcement, can receive lighter sentences than co-conspirators. Take, for example, the case of Mandy Martinson who is serving 15 years for assisting her drug-dealing boyfriend. At her sentencing, the judge stated, “The Court does not have any particular concern that Ms. Martinson will commit crimes in the future.” Unfortunately, due to inflexible mandatory minimum sentencing, Ms. Martinson received a 15-year prison sentence, while her boyfriend took a plea deal, resulting in a 12-year sentence.

While the Maryland General Assembly didn’t do away with mandatory minimum sentences, we did put more discretion back into a judge’s hand so that in egregious cases like Ms. Martinson’s, or in cases where drug rehabilitation would serve the public better than a lengthy prison stay, the judge can use the safety valve mechanism to provide an appropriate sentence.

Ironically, many of these mandatory minimum drug sentences were implemented nationally after the tragic death of Maryland basketball star, Len Bias, who died from a cocaine overdose. These laws were pushed by the federal government, which offered states money in return for enacting mandatory minimum laws.

Now Maryland has the chance to join the growing list of red and blue states implementing “smart on crime” reforms. These states are following the lead of Texas, which in 2007, opted to invest in drug and alcohol rehabilitation rather than build two prisons. The results have been impressive. Crime in Texas is at the lowest rate since 1968 and the number of inmates has fallen by 3 percent, which enabled the closure of three prisons and saved $3 billion.

Following the example of Texas, a host of states, led by red states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma, have instituted similar reforms, which focus on rehabilitating nonviolent offenders and preserving prison space for violent offenders.

Even the federal government is considering a bipartisan approach to the criminal justice system with mandatory minimum reform legislation being sponsored by a number of congressional leaders, some as ideologically diverse as conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and liberal Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Following his election, Gov. Larry Hogan correctly said the following about Maryland’s heroin problem: “This is a disease, and we will not be able to just arrest our way out of that crisis.” Maryland House Bill 121 has now been sent to Gov. Hogan’s desk, and it is my hope that he signs this legislation.

House Bill 121 strikes a balance by maintaining tough penalties for drug dealers, who must be behind bars to protect our communities, providing judicial discretion to depart from overly harsh mandatory penalties in egregious circumstances and increasing drug treatment. I urge Gov. Hogan to sign this legislation.

Michael Hough is a Maryland state senator representing Frederick and Carroll counties.

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