A Balanced Approach
Maryland gets it right on criminal justice reform
Maryland Senate Bill 1005, colloquially known as the Justice Reinvestment Act, became law on May 18 with Governor Larry Hogan’s signature after passing the Maryland House of Delegates by an overwhelming margin of 123-18. It previously passed unanimously in the Senate. Maryland will be safer for hardworking taxpayers because of these commonsense reforms that will improve and modernize the states’ criminal justice system.
Key provisions of the bill include eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, better utilization of alternatives to incarceration, the elimination of the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, and a reduction in age for the possibility of geriatric parole. While many provisions include reducing sentences for nonviolent or low-risk offenders, the bill also increases penalties for violent criminals. For example, the maximum sentence for a second-degree murderer is increased from 30 years to 40 years. In addition, abuse that results in the death of a teenager is now punishable by up to 40 years in prison. Furthermore, abuse that results in the death of a young child now is punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. Finally, the act creates a state racketeering statute to give police and prosecutors another option for going after gang members who deal drugs. These increases in punishments for dangerous offenders, as well as alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent and low-risk drug offenders demonstrate the act is not soft on crime, but rather smart on crime. It identifies the most dangerous offenders, keeps them off of the streets and provides rehabilitative services to low-risk offenders, which cost the taxpayer significantly less.
The Justice Reinvestment Act is largely a result of the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, which was formed in early 2015 to conduct research and studies in order to make recommendations related to reforming the criminal justice system. The council consisted of members of the Maryland legislature, the governor’s office and the law enforcement community. The intention of the council includes:
“…to craft a framework of sentencing and corrections policies with the goal of safely reducing the number of inmates in Maryland prisons, controlling state spending on prisons, and reinvesting those savings into more effective strategies to increase public safety and at the same time help nonviolent offenders from returning to prison.”
This bill had legislative support as well as popular support, as many Marylanders agree on the need for reform. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) partnered with Harper Polling to publish a study last year which found an overwhelming number of Maryland citizens are supportive of reforms tackled by the Justice Reinvestment Act. According to the study, 70 percent of Maryland voters favor repealing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and 78 percent believe the state spends too much money locking up nonviolent drug offenders.
Republican state Senator Michael Hough strongly supports this initiative and has historically been a proponent of criminal justice reform. The ALEC model Resolution in Support of Justice Reinvestment supports “creating reinvestment policies that work by saving money through criminal justice reforms, and reinvesting a portion of those funds into targeted services that reduce recidivism and prevent prison growth.” States such as Texas, Kansas and Connecticut have seen the principles of justice reinvestment yield savings on the costs of incarceration as a result of lower incarceration rates and lower recidivism rates.
Additionally, the Justice Reinvestment Act includes the impact crime has on victims. In fact, it requires inmates who are ordered to pay restitution to set aside 25 percent of their inmate earnings for those payments. It also requires the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention to study ways to make the collection of restitution more efficient.
“We must make certain that criminals pay victims back for the financial losses caused by their actions,” the governor said to an audience that included crime victims and their families.
The bill also calls for a portion of the money saved by lowering prison costs to go toward services for victims.
These comprehensive reform measures take into account various aspects of the criminal justice system. The inclusion of the law enforcement community on the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council was crucial to making meaningful reforms that would save taxpayer money without compromising public safety.