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Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery. (File photo)

Md. House gives preliminary approval to ‘justice reinvestment’ bill

ANNAPOLIS – The House of Delegates on Friday took a major step toward a final week of the session confrontation with the Senate over massive legislation to alter the way Maryland’s criminal justice system treats non-violent offenders from a tool for punishment to a gateway to treatment.

“It is a shift in the way we think,” said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery, a leading sponsor of the bill. “It is a shift in the paradigm.”

The House gave preliminary approval to its version of a proposed “Justice Reinvestment Act.” A final vote on its version, House Bill 1312, is expected early next week, after which senators and delegates will meet in an effort to hammer out differences between the two bills.

A unified measure would be presented to the Senate and House for final votes by each chamber — but the lawmakers would have to act quickly. The General Assembly session adjourns at 12 a.m. April 12.

The House’s preliminary approval did not come without detractors. Supporters of the measure defeated a series of amendments designed to preserve mandatory minimum sentences for theft and other non-violent crimes.

One detractor — Del. Patrick L. McDonough, R-Harford and Baltimore counties — called the 80-page-plus bill “a massive intrusion into the criminal justice system.”

Both the Senate and House measures would order treatment rather than incarceration for drug possession offenses. The bills would also remove mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession offenses and apply retroactively, freeing convicts who would have already served the adjusted sentences.

In addition, both bills would prevent non-violent criminals who commit technical violations of parole or probation, such as failing a drug test, from being ordered to serve long prison terms so long as they are not serial violators.

Specifically, judges could sentence a technical violator of probation to up to 15 days for a first offense, 30 days for a second offense and 45 days for a third offense. For a fourth offense, the judge could sentence the offender to serve out the remainder of his or her prison term.

Both bills would permit judges to cancel parole or probation if they conclude the technical violator presents a threat to public safety based on his or her history of violence.

The House measure, however, would make cancellation less likely insofar as the violators would have a “rebuttable presumption” that they do not pose a threat to public safety, a presumption that does not exist in the Senate bill.

The Senate measure, Senate Bill 1005, also contains provisions that would dramatically expand the number of crimes eligible for expungement, whereas the House bill is silent on expungement.

In addition, the Senate would expand the sentence for second-degree murder from 30 years to 40 years, while the House does not address the punishment for this violent crime.

The bills were prompted by the recommendations of the state’s Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, comprised of legislators, prosecutors and public defenders. The panel met last year, in collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts, to develop ways to reduce incarceration in Maryland – without reducing public safety – and with an eye toward cutting prison costs by millions of dollars annually.

Dumais, who served on the council, said Friday that the House bill is “truly a labor of love to get this through in a bipartisan manner. We wanted everyone at the table.”