By Natalie Jones
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — After a comprehensive law overhauled the state’s criminal justice system, Maryland has seen a decline in the state’s prison and jail populations and more streamlined treatment for addicts who are charged with crimes. Still, advocates want to add to the law to keep inmates from returning behind bars.
Signed into law in 2016, the Justice Reinvestment Act is a thorough criminal justice system reform that focuses on increasing supervision and treatment and decreasing incarceration rates in Maryland prisons.
Described by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) as the “most comprehensive reform” he’s seen while serving in the Senate, the law has significantly reformed many criminal justice policies since becoming fully effective on Oct. 1, 2017.
But some of its provisions are up in the legislature again.
The proposed update to the law aims to keep spots in prison beds open for serious, repeat violent offenders while also enforcing mandatory minimum sentences for high-level drug dealers. It also places caps on maximum sentences for nonviolent offenders who violate probation on a technicality.
About 700 inmates have been screened for administrative release since the 2016 legislation went into effect, with 21 percent, or 147 inmates, being found eligible. Of those, 60 percent have been released and the rest are fulfilling their minimum length of stay, according to a report from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
The state’s prison population dropped 1.8 percent in fiscal year 2018, and the local detention population dropped 10.3 percent, according to the report.
The bill also emphasizes treatment over incarceration for individuals struggling with addiction and has sparked a drastic drop in wait times for psychiatric beds.
Between fiscal years 2012 and 2014, placement times for beds averaged around 167 days, dropping to 91 days in fiscal year 2017. With the Justice Reinvestment Act’s new 21-day deadline adding pressure, average placement times dropped to just 10.6 days for the 788 individuals placed in treatment in fiscal year 2018, according to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention report.
For those returning to life outside the correctional system, the law states that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services must issue a certificate of rehabilitation to specified individuals.
Professional licensing boards then can’t deny occupational licenses or certificates to former convicts solely based on the fact that the individual had previously been convicted of a crime.
But for some individuals, return to life outside is complicated by how the state categorizes and links related charges.
Under the Justice Reinvestment Act, expungement is permitted after 10 years of good behavior, including any parole, probation or supervision, for misdemeanor charges.
After 15 years of good behavior, expungement is permitted for second-degree assault, felony theft, intent to distribute controlled, dangerous substances and burglary in the first, second and third degrees.
Before the law was enacted, only nuisance crimes such as public urination were eligible for expungement through the Justice Reinvestment Act.
Under current state law, a charge is not eligible for expungement if one conviction in a group of convictions is not eligible for expungement.
However, House Bill 13, sponsored by Del. Erek Barron (D-Prince George’s County), seeks to repeal that provision, and would authorize a person to file a petition for partial expungement of certain criminal records under certain circumstances.
The bill, previously introduced in the 2017 General Assembly, has been a topic in the legislature since 2012. It’s scheduled to be heard in the Senate on Thursday.
Alphonso Smith of Baltimore wrote to lawmakers this year that he has been working at the Maryland Transit Administration as an operations instructor for 20 years. He submitted written testimony that he is an ex-offender, and described the 34 years following his conviction, which he did not detail, as “somewhat successful.”
“There are many limitations and road blocks in place due to prior, non-expungeable convictions preventing any further advancement in law enforcement, child care and many other career paths,” he said Jan. 22 in written testimony supporting the bill. He added that the bill’s passage would clear a path for himself and others to begin the expungement process and to advance in his career without convictions weighing them down.
Along similar lines, House Bill 19, sponsored by Del. Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore), seeks to authorize individuals to file a petition for expungement if the person was convicted of a nonviolent crime.
For former convicts entering the workforce again, employers also don’t often understand the difference between conviction and non-conviction dispositions, said Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland.
Non-conviction dispositions are standard police records listing an individual’s involvement with courts or law enforcement, and conviction dispositions are criminal records with formal penalties.
Even if a charge receives a non-criminal disposition, under the Justice Reinvestment Act, if it’s in the same unit of charges as a criminal one, it can’t be expunged.
“Even when they understand these differences, employers often draw negative impressions about job applicants who have been involved with the criminal justice system, regardless of case outcome,” Barnes stated in his written testimony supporting House Bill 13.
Another factor to consider is race, Barnes said. Black residents make up 28 percent of the state population, yet they comprise over 70 percent of the incarcerated population.
With higher conviction rates for people of color, these individuals face exclusion from the job market, challenges finding stable housing and other cyclical problems, according to written testimony from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
Ex-offenders who are employed are much less likely to commit new offenses than those who are unemployed, according to a 2017 Greater Baltimore Committee report that described employment as the “single largest determinant of rearrest and reconviction.”
The expungement legislation faces opposition from the Maryland Judicial Conference, Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association.
Law enforcement officials generally oppose legislation that increases categories for expungement because it could interfere with access to prior criminal information and be a safety factor for law enforcement personnel, according to written testimony from co-chairs Chief David Morris of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and Sheriff Darren Popkin of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association.
Technological roadblocks are also a reason for opposition, according to representatives of the Maryland court system.
Online access to case records in Maryland is available through the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website, which currently has no functionality to remove single records at the charge level from the website, according to written testimony from the Maryland Judicial Conference.
Each charge is also assigned an individual number for each case. If a partial expungement is granted for one charge of a two-charge case, the system can’t renumber the charges to appear as if only one charge exists, according to written testimony from a Maryland court system representative.
“A missing numbered charge could raise more questions and red flags, therefore, nullifying the purpose of the expungement,” the Legislative Committee of the Maryland Judicial Council, the main policy advisory body to the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, said in written testimony opposing the bill.