Maryland is again looking to be one of the more progressive states in the nation when it comes to criminal justice reform, as legislators have agreed to pass a sweeping crime reform bill. The bill is unique in that it strengthens criminal penalties in some areas, but shifts the focus of criminal penalties in others.
The New Law
The new law, called the Justice Reinvestment Act, has a number of changes to Maryland’s criminal justice laws. The new law allows those who have finished 25% of sentences to be administratively released. The provision would only apply to nonviolent drug offenses, or thefts where the amount was less than $1,500. In some cases, if public safety is threatened, a parole commission can opt not to provide the early release.
It also eliminates mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses. The total length of the possible sentences will stay the same; the only difference is that judges will now have discretion in how long a sentence to award. Those with multiple offenses will have to serve half their sentences before being eligible for parole. Sentences for violent offenders and those who are considered “kingpins” will remain mandatory.
Mandatory sentences are the subject of much debate nationally. Once, they were believed to be an effective “tough on crime measure” because they guaranteed that someone convicted of a certain crime was given the legally prescribed sentence and avoided the risk that a “lenient” judge may provide someone a sentence too light for the crime they are convicted of.
But judges are often frustrated that they do not have the flexibility to modify sentences based on the facts of each case. Elimination of mandatory sentencing allows them that flexibility.
The bill does not just reduce sentences. In second-degree murder cases, under this new law the possible sentence increases from 30 to 40 years, and the possible sentence when a child is killed by child abuse has now been increased to a life sentence.
Laws meant to catch and prosecute organized crime and drug rings—known as a RICO act—have strengthened federal prosecutors power by allowing them into areas that were traditionally under the jurisdiction of state and local courts.
The law also includes the ability to expunge (erase from someone’s criminal record) certain lower level drug offenses.
Multiple Goals Lead to Bipartisan Support
A major goal of the legislation is to shift the focus from incarceration for minor drug offenses, to treatment and avoidance of recidivism. Proponents of the bill believe that getting offenders treatment and keeping them from re-entering the criminal justice system are the best way to combat lower-level crimes or drug offenses. Additionally, the laws free up prison beds for more serious offenders, avoiding critical prison overcrowding problems.
Because the changes both reduce sentences for more minor offenses and strengthen penalties for larger violent offenses, the legislation attracted the support of both democrats and republicans, who passed the bill before the end of the legislative session. Maryland’s governor also supports the legislation, and the ACLU has expressed approval.
Make sure your attorneys understand all the changes in the laws that may affect you. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss representation from arrest to trial.