- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2016

ANNAPOLIS | A sweeping criminal justice reform bill hit a snag Monday as Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller questioned the legislation’s ability to save enough money to reinvest in drug treatment plans and other alternatives to prison.

According to the Pew Charitable Trust, which worked with state lawmakers on the bill and collecting data, the legislation had been estimated to save nearly $250 million over 10 years before amendments were adopted Thursday and Friday.

But an analysis released over the weekend said that actual savings would be closer to $40 million over 10 years, and that the prison population — instead of decline by 15 percent — would increase instead.

Mr. Miller questioned the bill’s efficacy if its savings could not be applied to rehabilitative alternatives for drug offenders, saying, “If we don’t have the savings, what are we doing?”

The wide-ranging legislation would direct judges to send drug offenders to treatment facilities instead of jail, eliminate certain mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession charges, end disparities between crack and powder cocaine possession charges, and allow low-level drug convictions to be more easily expunged from offenders’ records, among other reforms to the criminal justice system.

On Friday, members of the Senate deemed the bill a “landmark” piece of legislation that would change the course of criminal justice in the state, but by Monday, the bill seemed to falter.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, Baltimore County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the bill — which he argued would reduce recidivism without putting public safety at risk — would move forward as planned.

Pew researchers said that specific wording in the bill would give judges discretion through a “good cause” exception to keep offenders in jail for technical violations in their parole or probation, adding that the wording would cost the state millions of dollars and slash the anticipated savings.

Mr. Zirkin disagreed that the wording would cost the state upwards of $200 million, but said his committee agreed to offer an amendment to take out that wording.

“Our committee is tacitly OK with doing away with the good cause exception,” he said. “What we won’t do, and let me repeat, underline, underline, underline, will not get rid of the public safety exception. If somebody is dangerous, the judges should have ultimate discretion.”

The bill was part of dozens of bills the Senate got through Monday as lawmakers prepared for “crossover” day, the deadline for each chamber to approve legislation and send it to the other chamber for consideration.

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