A broad-based campaign to reform Maryland's sentencing laws reached fruition Tuesday as Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich signed into law a bill that will divert nonviolent drug offenders into treatment programs instead of sending them to prison. The bill also gives Maryland judges more discretion at sentencing and appropriates $3 million in new funding for drug treatment. It will go into effect October 1.
"Maryland is part of a growing national trend to treat drug addiction as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue, and Marylanders will be healthier and safer as a result," said Michael Blain, Director of Public Policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org). "The Drug Policy Alliance has worked on similar legislation in California and other states to further reduce the harm done by the war on drugs. The impact has been tens of thousands of people receiving treatment instead of incarceration, and savings of hundreds of millions of dollars to state budgets."
"We didn't get everything we wanted, but we did get a few things we hadn't even asked for, and I think we got a good solid bill that will benefit the state of Maryland," said Tara Andrews, head of the Maryland Justice Coalition, which, along with DPA is a member of Maryland Campaign for Treatment Not Incarceration (http://www.treatnotjail.org), the umbrella group that spearheaded the effort to change the state's sentencing practices.
"There was a lot of negotiating between Democrats and Republicans, between judges and the campaign, the parole commission got involved, there were various versions of this bill flying around for awhile," she told DRCNet. "By the time it got done, a forensic scientist couldn't have identified all the fingerprints on this bill."
Under the new law, prosecutors will have discretion to divert drug offenders into treatment instead of prosecution and judges will have the discretion to divert convicted drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. Also, persons already serving prison time will be able to be paroled for treatment purposes.
Not only will the law reduce racial disparities within the state's prison system -- 90% of imprisoned drug offenders are black in a state where blacks make up only 28% of the population -- and slow the expansion of inmate numbers, it will also save the state money. According to studies commissioned by the Campaign, diverting 2,000 to 3,000 nonviolent drug offenders or drug-related offenders into treatment instead of prison would save the state between $44 million and $66 million per year.
The effort to pass the sentencing reform bill was a model of effectively lobbying a state government. "We were in this campaign from the beginning," explained DPA's Blain. "About two years ago we joined others in beginning to build up the coalition," which now includes 43 different social justice, criminal justice, good government, and other organizations. "We did a concept paper that evaluated how Maryland could best be served by some form of treatment instead of jail. We did polling and found that 72% of voters favored treatment," he told DRCNet. "Then we went out and started building legislative relationships."
It was a strategy that worked, as the Campaign managed to gain the support of the Legislative Black Caucus, the Hispanic and Asian caucuses, and the Women's Legislative Caucus. The Campaign tailored its message carefully, said Blain.
"Those numbers about African-Americans making up 90% of the drug prisoners but only 28% of the overall population were the hook we needed for the black caucus," said Blain. "This is Maryland, this is where Kunta Kinte landed as a slave in 1757. Sitting right on the Mason-Dixon line, Maryland was always half slave and half free, and there's a lot of blacks in Maryland who still think they're free. When we educated the black caucus about those numbers, even moderate and conservative members were moved to get off the fence."
There was also personal politicking, said Blain. "I sat down with black caucus chairman Rep. Obie Patterson, and I showed him the numbers and showed him the polling and said, 'I'm going to make you famous, and we can do it one of two ways. I'll provide the media support you need to pass this, we have a coalition in place to pass this, and we can shop you all around the country as someone who successfully championed reform. Or, if you want to do it the other way, I'll go back to your constituents in Prince Georges County and tell them you don't care about this injustice,'" Blaine explained. "I wanted to give the members a torch to carry, but I also wanted them to understand they could get burned if they didn't pick it up."
But it wasn't just working with the Democrats or the minority caucuses, said Blain. "I also met with Republican legislators like Rep. Tony O'Donnell, who sits on the judiciary committee and is very conservative," he explained. "When I showed him the numbers, though, he conceded it was a problem. He said he would support this, he would sponsor the bill, but only if we delivered the black caucus. So we got O'Donnell and the caucus together, and," Blaine laughed, "we actually got him quoting Frederick Douglass, saying 'If there is no struggle, there is no progress.'"
While Republican Gov. Ehrlich had made getting drug offenders out of jail and into treatment a centerpiece of his inaugural speech in January 2003, the bill produced by the administration in response to the Campaign's efforts was lackluster, said Blain. "Once they saw our bill, all of a sudden the administration wanted to do their own bill, but the governor's bill would only have diverted 98 people, while ours will divert two or three thousand. The governor asked us to drop our bill, but we already had 40 or 50 sponsors and we said 'No way -- we'll kill both bills before that happens.' Because of all the support we had, we drove the governor into our camp."
One measure of the success of this sort of legislative effort is the final floor votes. In the Assembly, the measure passed 139-1, while the Senate voted unanimously for the bill. This is a deal that was done before the votes were counted.
"It's a beautiful thing that Maryland has joined the national trend to reform its drug laws at a time when the state can ill afford to be wasting more money or more human lives," Blaine said. "We applaud the efforts of everyone who helped make this happen."
But getting the bill passed and signed into law is just the beginning, said the Justice Center's Andrews, and there is plenty of work to be done before October. "Between now and then, we'll be putting together a short strategy on educating judges, states' attorneys and public defenders about what the new law is, so they will take full advantage of what the law now provides," she said. "We will also be educating prisoners because there is a section of the law that applies to people currently serving time if they are nonviolent, have a drug problem, and can identify a drug treatment program. We want them to harass their case managers to find that treatment so we can get them out of prison and on the path to being productive citizens," she said.
With the new law allocating $3 million for new treatment as part of the governors inmate reentry program, there is also work to be done to ensure that money is divvied up properly, said Andrews. "The bill sets up a local coordinating council to determine needs and receive funding," she said. "We want to make sure those councils are set up so that minorities are present -- not just treatment professionals, but also the community, just regular folks, and even recovering addicts as well. Winning the battle in the legislature is just the beginning."
Maryland has now become the 27th state to reform its drug or sentencing laws in the past few years, but as Andrews suggested, passing legislation is only half the battle. Now comes the struggle to see that it is implemented in the most advantageous manner.