- - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is expected to sign legislation Thursday to combat crime and improve the state’s criminal justice system. The new law, called the Justice Reinvestment Act, will eliminate mandatory minimum prison terms for low-level drug offenders, help more addicts get treatment, and reserve longer prison sentences for more serious offenders. When he signs the new law, Mr. Hogan will become the latest Republican governor to apply conservative principles to the criminal justice system.

Just last month, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed bipartisan legislation to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession. The governor herself proposed the idea earlier in the year, telling state lawmakers, “Oklahoma’s drug possession sentences haven’t deterred substance abuse and have filled our prisons to over capacity. These sentences, while well intentioned, tend to send some nonviolent offenders into prison for years and years, where they live alongside violent offenders whose bad influences can make nonviolent offenders worse.”

Mrs. Fallin had not gone soft on crime. Rather, she applied common-sense and cost-benefit analysis to a government program that rarely receives it. Her smart reforms will prevent thousands of people from becoming classified as felons for life, which, as she noted, “makes it harder for them to get a job and many times leads to the breakup of their family.” Mrs. Fallin correctly believes criminal justice reform can be pro-safety, pro-family and pro-taxpayer.

Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has also proven himself to be a leader for conservative criminal justice reform. In his State of the State address earlier this year, Mr. Branstad argued that criminal laws should permit distinctions between more serious offenders and low-level drug offenders. “In many cases,” Mr. Branstad said, “tax dollars may be better spent on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. We can protect the public while rehabilitating those who have committed crimes.”

Last week, Mr. Branstad was able to sign some of his common-sense reform ideas into law. Specifically, a new law passed by the Iowa legislature permits those serving lengthy, one-size-fits-all drug mandatory minimum sentences to become eligible for parole much earlier than before. This reform allows the state to distinguish between those who need more jail time and those who are ready to become contributing members of society. Iowans will get greater public safety for less money, a win-win proposition.

Now it’s Mr. Hogan’s turn to show how Republican principles can make the criminal justice system work better. Over the past year, the governor’s office worked with prosecutors and public defenders, judges and prison officials, and lawmakers from both political parties to craft meaningful reforms to Maryland’s justice system. The objective of this effort was to continue Maryland’s record of reducing both its crime and incarceration rates. Over the past decade, Maryland’s crime rate fell by approximately 30 percent while its prison population decreased 5 percent,

Mr. Hogan and lawmakers are ready to build on this success. “Taking a tough stance on crime isn’t just about incarceration,” Mr. Hogan has said. “In order to achieve lasting results in our criminal justice system, we must strike a balance and explore better, smarter options that reduce recidivism and help those who have served their time get back on their feet.”

The law Mr. Hogan signs will do just that. It will ensure that low-level drug offenders are more likely to be sentenced to treatment instead of jail time. It will reform the parole and probation system to make it less likely that an offender will be sent back to jail for technical infractions. It will eliminate unnecessary and ineffective mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offenders. Overall, the new law will reserve expensive prison space for dangerous criminals who threaten public safety. The law also requires that some of the money saved by shortening sentences for low-level offenders must be reinvested in victims’ services.

Republican leadership on criminal justice reform is nothing new in the states. Conservative governors and lawmakers in red states such as Texas and Georgia have demonstrated that smart reforms can help to reduce crime, save taxpayers money and protect families. We salute Mr. Hogan for his leadership in Maryland and hope more leaders follow his example.

Doug Deason is the president of the Deason Foundation. Kevin Ring is vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and author of “Scalia’s Court: A Legacy of Landmark Opinions and Dissents” (Regnery, 2016).


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