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Md. panel seeks money for mental health, substance abuse programs

ANNAPOLIS — A panel tasked with finding ways to reduce criminal recidivism in Maryland may have to look for other sources of money to pay for any proposed programs.

Consultants working with the state Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council told members of a subcommittee on sentencing Thursday that the early cost projections for increasing substance abuse and mental health programs will likely not be initially covered by some recommended changes to the state’s criminal justice system. Further complicating those estimates are proposals to reduce drug-related sentencing guidelines that some say will be controversial and perhaps impossible to pass.

Despite pressure to find savings within the existing system, some members of the panel believe the state will have to spend money up-front on establishing those services before it can realize savings in future years.

“We’re going to find the money,” said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and member of the state’s Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council. “The reality is in order to make this work, we’re going to find the money.”

Consultants with the Pew Charitable Trusts estimate that the desired programs will cost as much as $36 million annually. Three subgroups of the council, including one on sentencing, are working on recommendations that will likely reduce current spending by $35 million to $40 million. The actual figure is expected to be somewhat lower after accounting for overlap in those recommendations, the consultants told the panel.

Senior officials in Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration told the same panel that it is unlikely anything will move forward unless the group can cover the costs.

Christopher Shank, the former state senator who now is executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, cautioned against the notion that there should be additional new money spent on programs, and he said tough decisions will need to be made.

“We don’t get to $36 million (in programs) unless we identify the savings to do this,” said Shank. “We don’t have it lying around anywhere.”

Zirkin said the panel should take time to look for additional funds within the budget, including redirecting revenue from existing fines and fees.

Timothy Maloney, a former delegate and attorney, called for the group to recommend that the governor be mandated to spend money on the substance abuse and mental health programs.

Maloney said that without mandates other spending would eventually gobble up anything that was intended for treatment.

“If we’re lucky maybe we’ll get $5 million, maybe we’ll get $4 million, maybe we’ll get $3 million,” Maloney said. “DHMH has much larger mandatory spending items. Little discretionary stuff like this, it goes out with the tide.”

Some proposals under consideration include reducing sentencing guidelines for a wide range of crimes from theft to drug possession and intent to distribute drugs.

Reducing some of the sentences could place additional strain on the budgets of local governments, which are responsible for housing convicts with sentences under 18 months.

Del. Kathleen Dumais. (File)

Del. Kathleen Dumais. (File)

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery County and vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the council, said any effort to make changes will require a close examination of criminal penalties.

“I don’t think we can say, ‘Do all of this but we’ll leave the sentences the same,” said Dumais. “Consistent with what other states have done, reducing sentences for possession is important.”

Some of the recommendations for sentencing changes would reduce sentences for drug distribution for substances such as crystal meth and heroin to make them the same as those for distributing marijuana and, in some cases, capping those sentences at five years regardless of the number of offenses.

Consultants told the panel that the changes would fall in line with what’s been done recently in other states such as Arkansas and would eliminate beds within the prison system, which cost an estimated $38,000 annually. That money could be reinvested in drug treatment, which Pew estimated would cost about $18,000 per-person annually.

“At the end of the day our job is to protect the public safety not find beds so we can can find money to reinvest,” Zirkin said.