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Community groups unite for Md. criminal justice reform

'People's Commission' cites concern with racial bias

Community groups unite for Md. criminal justice reform

'People's Commission' cites concern with racial bias

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Thousands of protesters joined the march that ended at City Hall on Monday evening. Despite some violent acts later in the night Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young praised the restraint of activists and police. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)
Thousands of protesters join a march that ended at Baltimore’s City Hall on June 1. Protesters were demonstrating in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and to further the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)

Maryland’s criminal laws and policies must be reviewed and when necessary changed to protect minorities, exploited women and the poor from being targeted by the police simply because of who they are, members of a fledgling coalition of community organizations said Wednesday.

The reevaluation of the state’s criminal justice system must involve altering its focus from arrest, prosecution and incarceration to addressing ways of removing the invidious presumption of guilt from minorities, sex workers, troubled teens and others living in blighted neighborhoods, the People’s Commission to Decriminalize Maryland said.

Maryland’s laws and policies often give police overly broad authority to investigate and arrest based on a complaint, said Tara Huffman, a committee member and director of the criminal and juvenile justice program at Open Society Institute-Baltimore. Often, the complaints are either baseless or can be resolved without police intervention, Huffman added.

“We are looking to … identify laws that bring marginalized communities into contact with the police” unnecessarily, Huffman said. “What do we want police, courts and corrections to be involved in?”

The commission consists of and speaks solely for those with the “lived experience” of the biased targeting and does not include judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys of police among its members, the group’s leadership said.

The organization’s formation in January predated the economic havoc wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide protests against police brutality spurred by the May 25 death of defenseless George Floyd, a Black man, while being violently restrained by Minneapolis police officers.

Tricia Christensen, who chairs the commission’s drug policy panel, said minorities found in possession of drugs are too often charged with serious drug distribution offenses when the drugs are intended solely for their personal use. She added her panel will examine whether the state’s drug distribution quantity threshold should be increased so the law cannot be used as a basis for targeting blighted minority communities.

“The war on drugs: It has always been a war on people,” said Christensen, of the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition. “Approaching everything from the incarceral framework is lazy.”

Gabriela Sevilla, who heads the commission’s panel on homelessness, said the homeless are too often treated like a threat to public safety even as their numbers are likely to increase amid the widespread unemployment caused by the pandemic.

Laws and policies should be focused on “reducing the harm to people who have to live their private lives in public” and “seeking to restore dignity and respect to our neighbors experiencing homelessness,” added Sevilla, of the Homeless Person Representation Project.

Christopher Dews, who chairs the commission’s poverty panel, voiced concern for laws that enable indigent debtors to be jailed for the civil offense of not paying a court-ordered fine or judgment for a creditor. People should not lose their liberty for “the fatal crime of just being poor,” said Dews, of the Job Opportunities Task Force.

Gassoh Goba, who leads the commission’s sex-workers panel, said Maryland law and policy should be aimed not at criminalizing prostitution but at relieving the financial and personal desperation of those women who “feel their only option is to sell sex.”

“What structures are currently failing us?” added Goba, of the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Baltimore. The state’s goal should be the “decriminalization, decarceration and destigmatization of sex work,” Goba added.

Ashley DeVaughn, who co-leads the commission’s youth working group, cited laws against truancy in saying Maryland has criminalized “adolescent behavior” in a way that targets minorities, the homeless and other vulnerable youth. Such offenses are not crimes requiring punishment but youthful offenses in need of diversionary programs, he said.

“The justice system is inherently traumatic to youth,” said DeVaughn, of Advocates for Children and Youth.

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