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C. Fraser Smith: A second chance to get it right

Are we about to see a step toward right-sizing of prisons?

We all know now about orange being the new black. Orange for prison jump suit — worn predominantly in this country by black people, mostly black men.

We are incarceration nation. Fear and politics, working in tandem, have made us the most prison-centric nation in the world. Scholars and others have shown us the cost in ruined lives, decimated communities and cost-burdened states.

And no one, until recently, done much about it. Still too much worry that a reform advocate could pay at the polls. But maybe that’s fading.

Until now, small steps in the right direction have been restrained by the same fears and political opposition. A bill that removes what amounts to a life sentence for minor offenses has been turned back three times.

Sen. Jamie Raskin’s “Second Chance” bill would allow a person convicted of non-violent misdemeanors to have that offense shielded from employers if certain conditions are met.

Success for the bill could signal some serious work on the bigger problem. It’s not an entirely fanciful thing to see misdemeanors as the first step to more serious crime. If relatively minor offenses keep someone jobless for a lifetime, what might they do to feed their families? More crime would lead to more imprisonment.

Raskin says his bill makes too much sense to ignore.

Some Republicans have joined him this time. A Second Chance co-sponsor is freshman Sen. Michael Hough of Frederick, one of the most conservative of the legislators in Annapolis. If these men and women are not persuaded by the common sense human aspect of the legislation, they do see the costs of keeping people in jail.

As for business opponents, Raskin says this year’s bill has been tightened to address objections.

“This bill has been carved into a very sturdy and streamlined vehicle over several years,” the Montgomery County senator says. It would apply only to those who are without further convictions for at least three years and completion of probation and parole.”

Even then, a judge and state’s attorney would have to sign off on the shielding application.

It would represent a bigger step toward solution of the problem than many may think.

Who knew that 200,000 or so Marylanders live under the debilitating cloud of what may have been a youthful lapse in good judgment?

The sentences in such cases amount to what Raskin calls “a scarlet letter” — to be worn in the public record for a lifetime. Getting a job or getting into public housing can be almost impossible with such a mark on your record.

One could argue that the absence of a shield creates perfect condition for crime. When an individual has no way of making a living, the basic challenges of life become difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Crime-idled offenders are separated from family and community.

It’s not just the offender who suffers.

Spouses and children are set adrift. Children grow up without a father or mother.

In some cases, society loses hidden potential: people who could contribute if they were not hobbled by a mistake.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby says: “It is time Maryland joins 30 states that limit public access to criminal records in order to mitigate collateral damages.”

So here’s a life-saving chance for 200,000 Marylanders. It’s one of first chances in a long time for the state to roll back a system that costs far too much in dollars and lives.

And there is this: “You either believe in second chances or you don’t.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.