Editorial: Things Are Gradually Moving in the Right Direction

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David Borden
Earlier this week I learned from some colleagues who are doing work in Maryland that a bill to restore parole for second-time drug offenders had been passed by a committee in the state's House of Delegates but was facing an uncertain fate in the Senate. A number of senators on the committee had committed to voting for it, but one more was needed to get the bill to go through and have its chance in the full Assembly. The bulletin listed five senators who were still undecided.

I decided that, even though in absolute terms the number of people on our list identified as being from those five districts would likely be small, it was important to take some action. Mandatory minimum sentencing is one of the great evils of our time. According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, in 2005 Maryland had 4,900 people incarcerated whose worst offense was a drug offense (though it's not known how many are serving mandatory minimums due to limitations in the available datasets), and Maryland spends the greater part of its correctional budget on incarcerating drug offenders.

Things have gotten a little better recently -- the state is one of only 11 that have fewer prisoners now than four years ago -- but the state's incarceration situation is still a travesty. One or two phone calls could well make the difference for a legislator at the state level. One of our members wrote back to let me know the staffer in his senator's office said that his was the only call they had received about the bill at all. One is better than zero -- we made some impact. How much? No way to really tell.

Going into our political database and checking off the names of those five undecided senators, looking to see who we had in their districts, had the effect of making me think. It made me wonder why anyone would not want to restore parole to these people. After all, it's not even legalization or decriminalization. I fervently want for more people to understand the deleterious consequences of prohibition so we can end it, but that's not on the table this year. These are nonviolent offenders. In parole, the Board considers a person's conduct while incarcerated and a range of other factors before deciding whether to give him or her a second chance. I don't expect everyone to think the way I do on everything to do with drugs and criminal justice. But this one seems so straightforward at this late date when mandatory minimums have been so heavily criticized for so long. No one said this job would be easy. But I had to stop and wonder why the clearest acts of conscience can seem so unclear to so many.

Thursday brought good news on the issue, the bill had passed the committee and the margin was comfortable -- one Republican even supported it. A fight is expected on the floor of the House and the Senate. But in getting this far the bill has gone further than any other mandatory minimum repeal bill in Maryland to date.

Things are gradually getting better -- starting to, anyway.

Look for more alerts from us on this issue, at the federal level, over the coming months.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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