Maryland Legislature Passes Criminal Justice Reform

The General Assembly on Monday passed a comprehensive reform of Maryland's criminal justice system and a measure to increase police accountability, but a tax-relief plan and a bill to provide sick days for employees of companies with at least 15 employees stalled.

Lawmakers also approved on the final day of the session a measure to expand ignition-locking device requirements to stop drunken drivers, after a Montgomery County police officer was killed while working on a sobriety checkpoint last year.

The criminal justice reform bill was months in the making. Its overall goal is to save money by incarcerating fewer nonviolent inmates and investing savings in drug treatment. It covers various issues including imprisonment, parole, treatment options, victim restitution and criminal record expungement.

 "This is truly a bipartisan effort,'' said Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He described it as "a game-changer in terms of our criminal justice system.''

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said it was a productive session.

"When you take a look at what took place this year, there was quite a bit of accomplishments that the General Assembly can point to, the governor can point to,'' Busch said.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said he was very happy with how the Justice Reinvestment Act turned out. He also was pleased the state budget passed smoothly two weeks ago. However, he was disappointed that the tax-relief package fell apart, saying its failure was "very frustrating and disappointing.''

A Senate plan included tax cuts to the state's four highest tax brackets as well as tax relief for low-income workers and a small cut for middle-income workers, while the House focused relief on middle- and low-income workers.

The sick-day measure showed signs of life early in the session's last day, but progress stalled in the waning hours. Under the bill, workers could have earned one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work, up to seven full sick days a year.

The ignition interlock bill will require the devices to be installed for six months for anyone who blows a .08 in a breath test, or else the person's license would be suspended for that time period. If someone refuses a breath test, they will either have to install the devices for nine months or have their license suspended for that time.

Rich Leotta, the father of Officer Noah Leotta, whose death last year brought added attention to the state's ignition interlock laws, said the process took too long, but he's happy the bill passed. He said the new law, which Hogan supports, will honor his son's memory.

"Noah will still be on patrol,'' Leotta said. "It was a sacrifice that he made, but it was not in vain.''

The police reform bill was the product of months of work by a panel that was convened shortly after the Baltimore riots last year following the death of Freddie Gray, who was injured in a Baltimore Police Department van and later died.

The bill not only changes policies on how police are disciplined, but also how officers are trained and hired. It allows for a civilian, non-voting member to be on boards that review complaints against police and lets local officials to decide whether to add two more civilians as either voting or non-voting members. People also will be able to file complaints anonymously. Trial board proceedings also will be open to the public.

"This whole process is going to be opened up in hopes that the community will see the police as their friends, and the police will treat the community with respect,'' said Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore.

The bill also includes changes to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. For example, the period of time residents can file a complaint against police will be extended from 90 days to a year and a day. The measure also limits the time an officer can take to retain an attorney for internal investigations from 10 days to five.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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