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Justice Reinvestment Act faces implementation challenges, lawmakers told

Former U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr., who chairs the Workgroup on Collateral Consequences of Convictions, said he hopes the panel’s upcoming report will help remove ‘unnecessary barriers’ to ex-convicts becoming productive and gainfully employed members of society, which will in turn sharply reduce the likelihood of recidivism. (File photo)

Maryland law still contains ‘too many non-violent offenses that end up with people being incarcerated,’ retired U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. told lawmakers Thursday during a legislative oversight hearing on the Justice Reinvestment Act. Williams chaired a workgroup last year that examined ways to remove barriers to newly freed inmates finding employment. (File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – A legislative oversight hearing Thursday on the Justice Reinvestment Act revealed implementation challenges under the landmark 2016 measure that changes the way Maryland’s criminal justice system treats non-violent offenders from a tool of punishment to a gateway to treatment.

Maryland law still contains “too many non-violent offenses that end up with people being incarcerated,” retired U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. told the joint hearing of four Senate and House committees.

Incarcerated individuals also do not receive enough mental health treatment and vocational training, said Williams, who chaired a workgroup last year that examined ways to remove barriers to newly freed inmates finding employment.

Williams’ testimony came as the General Assembly considers whether amendments to the Justice Reinvestment Act are needed prior to its effective date of Oct. 1.

Also testifying before the committees were representative of the Governor’s Office of Crime, Control & Prevention, the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene and the Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services.

Questions from lawmakers addressed the signature issue raised by the law’s reform in criminal justice: Will the state have enough beds and a sufficient budget for people ordered by judges to receive drug and mental-health treatment instead of incarceration?

“I think it’s going to be a challenge,” said Barbara J. Bazron, executive director of the Behavioral Health Administration at the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. But she added the department is well aware of the law’s requirements.

Speaking to that imperative, Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe said the act signifies “a shift in philosophy from the jail bed to the treatment bed.”

States cannot “jail their way out of the social problem of addiction,” DeWolfe told the committees. “A jail cell or a prison cell is not the appropriate place to treat the mentally ill.”

More reform coming?

The Senate and House passed the Justice Reinvestment Act on the final day of the 2016 session and Gov. Larry Hogan signed it into law in May.

The statute eliminates mandatory minimums for drug crimes and permits ailing convicts age 60 and older to be granted probation if their health indicates they do not present a threat to society. The measure also contains provisions that would dramatically expand the number of crimes eligible for expungement.

Under the law, technical violations of parole and probation, such as failing a drug test, will generally not result in long prison sentences. Judges will be able 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.

Several legislators Thursday characterized the law as a starting point for other criminal-justice reform measures likely to come before the General Assembly this session.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s and a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the number of crimes subject to expungement under the law should be increased so a non-violent criminal record does not serve as a barrier to employment.

Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City, said justice reinvestment should also include bail reform. Defendants should not be held in jail prior to trial because they were too poor to afford bail, added Anderson, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

The Senate Budget & Taxation Committee and the House Health & Government Operations Committee also participated in the oversight hearing.

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