There was a great deal of controversy and confusion about crime bills in the Maryland General Assembly in the session that just ended. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I heard from constituents, participated in hours of hearings, read and re-read the various bills — including a variety of amendments both suggested and adopted — and I followed the articles in the media.
Now that the dust has settled, let me share my perspective. I come to this discussion having long advocated for substance abuse treatment and dealing with the social causes of crime.
The center of the controversy was Senate Bill 122, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11). It was later reconstituted into two bills, SB 101 and SB 1137. Ultimately, the bills earned bipartisan support, including from Gov. Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. Many minority legislators voted in favor of both bills, as did the District 11 team — myself, Sen. Zirkin, Dels. Dana Stein and Shelly Hettleman — and Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41). SB 101 passed the House 107-31 and the Senate 38-7, while SB 1137 passed with votes of 134-4 and 45-0.
Progress was made in managing nonviolent offenders two years ago with the passage of the Justice Reinvestment Act. People from across the political spectrum worked on this, and Sen. Zirkin, as chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, played a key role.
But problems continue with violent crime, as the daily news informs us, and SB 122 (and later SB 101 and SB 1137) was developed in response. Proponents emphasized that the bill focused on persons who were repeatedly convicted of violent crimes and/or used firearms in their commission. Opponents felt that the bill targeted minorities, added unfair jail sentences and did not deal with the root causes of crime.
There are a small number of people who commit the vast majority of serious felonies. These are the most violent crimes, including murder, rape, child sexual abuse, burglary, kidnapping, carjacking, witness intimidation and home invasion, almost always with weapons or firearms. Only a few hundred people do these things, but they do so repeatedly and are collectively responsible for thousands of crimes. While they should get the best treatments possible in the hopes of rehabilitation, the reality is that these people need to be removed for public safety, often for long periods of time.
The purpose of SB 122 was to narrowly focus on this subgroup, especially those who had been convicted of not just one felony but were repeatedly convicted. Note the following. In our system, it’s hard to get two felony convictions. Typically, these people have worked their way through the criminal justice system, with probations before judgement, plea bargains, misdemeanor convictions and possibly arrests with cases dismissed. We know that they often commit several or many crimes before they are caught and convicted for one of them. By the time a person achieves the dubious status of two felony convictions, the overwhelming likelihood is that they are a public safety risk.
When SB 122 got to the House Judiciary Committee, where I serve, the arguments had become incendiary, and it was impossible for the two sides to even talk with each other. The dictum “when in doubt, read the bill” had been discarded. SB 122 had become politically radioactive.
Nonetheless, we proceeded. In the House Judiciary Committee, SB 122 was pored over, and various amendments were adopted that smoothed over some of the rough edges. Several of my suggestions, including an amendment clarifying that substance abuse treatment would be available everyone in the jail system, were added.
Finally, it was clear that a new strategy was needed, one that would bring the focus back to public policy. The revised SB 122 was discarded, but most of its concepts were divided into the two other bills, SB 101 and SB 1137, with some changes, including for the first time in Maryland law, the possibility of expungement for a felony.
It troubles me that through this process, tempers flared and things were said or written about people, groups and legislators that were misleading or false. I believe everyone involved in this wanted to improve public safety and was sincere in their perspective whether it agreed with mine or not. However, let’s learn that it’s better to sit down and work through issues, plow through bills line by line, and let’s not give in to name calling or smear campaigns.
Dan Morhaim is a Democratic delegate for Maryland’s 11th District and an emergency medicine physician.