The Justice Reinvestment Act is advancing in the House after the Judiciary Committee approved it by a wide margin last week. The bill is heading toward a full House vote, but lawmakers will likely be required to compromise on a few key issues before the bill ultimately gains approval from the General Assembly. The Senate and House versions differ slightly, and these differences must be hammered out before the bill is presented to the governor. The House version includes a racketeering provision designed to target gang related drug dealers, eliminates jail sentences for driving on a suspended license, and unlike the Senate version does not attempt to lengthen the maximum sentences for second degree murder and kidnapping. The overall tenor of the bill though is shared by both chambers of the Maryland Legislature; the House and the Senate share a strong desire to reduce the prison population and reinvest savings toward crime prevention through education and treatment. In our last post we outlined one of the four avenues lawmakers will use to achieve their stated goal and in this post we’ll touch on the other three.
Lowering maximum sentences for numerous non-violent offenses as we previously discussed is a step in the right direction, but alone will not reduce the number of prison inmates. To supplement lower maximum sentences the bill also focuses on modifying the parole process, streamlining violation of probation procedures, and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for many drug violations. When a judge sentences a defendant to state prison time in a case not involving a minimum mandatory sentence he or she will not actually spend the entire sentence in prison. Maryland is a parole state, meaning that after serving a certain amount of the sentence (sometimes as low as 25%) almost all defendants are eligible for release under certain conditions. But the parole process can be defined as arbitrary and haphazard, and many times defendants who are of no danger and have been sufficiently punished remain in prison, while others are released too early. The bill attempts to implement a more refined and logical parole process in an attempt to find an appropriate actual sentence served for each different defendant. Under the Act all defendants will undergo a risk and assessment analysis promptly after sentencing. A larger array of educational and reentry programs will be offered once in custody, and the potential for monthly sentence deductions will be expanded. The goal is to keep offenders in custody for no longer than necessary, and the Act represents a major move toward this goal.
The Act also takes unprecedented measures to streamline procedure of probation violations. Hundreds if not thousands of defendants are sent to prison or back to county jail each year for technical probation violations. These technical violations can include missing and appointment, changing an address without approval, or not completing a drug class. Technical violations do not include new arrests or absconding from probation. Under the bill, defendant can be sentenced up to 15 days for a first technical violation of probation, 30 for a second, and 45 for a third violation. Fourth or non-technical violations may result in the defendant serving to the entire balance of the sentence. A judge may depart from these sentencing guidelines at anytime if he or she makes a finding that the defendant poses a risk to the public, or a victim or witness. If these probation violation changes are implemented both the prison system and the court system would reap the probable benefits of less inmates and lower caseloads.
Finally, the Act will effectively do away with minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent drug distribution or possession with intent to deliver. A second time offender for narcotics distribution currently faces a ten-year mandatory sentence, but the bill inserts a provision giving the judge discretion to depart from this requirement. There is no provision as of yet to give judges discretion to avoid the 5-year minimum mandatory sentence for possession of a large amount of drugs such as heroin (28 grams), cocaine (448 grams), or marijuana (50 pounds). A minor change, which is probably 20 years too late, is that the new large amount threshold for crack cocaine will become the same 448 grams as powder cocaine.
The Blog will continue to follow the progress of the Justice Reinvestment Act, and we will provide an update later on in the process. We expect various minor changes throughout the bill, but it will likely cross the governor’s desk this summer with many of the provisions just discussed. Benjamin Herbst is a criminal defense lawyer who handles cases in all Maryland state and federal courts. Contact Benjamin anytime to discuss your case and your options at no cost.
Justice Reinvestment Act progresses in House, wmdt.com.