More treatment, not prison

March 14, 2007

Despite some progress, Maryland's mandatory minimum sentences are still too harsh, particularly on African-American defendants, and they don't allow enough low-level drug offenders to get treatment, which would be more helpful to them and to the public, according to a recent policy study. Legislation pending in the General Assembly would help address these concerns and deserves to be passed.

Like many states, Maryland has relied on firm, fixed punishments as an effective way to fight crime. But over the years, mandatory minimums have come to be viewed by some states as grossly unfair, locking up low-level, nonviolent offenders for long periods of time when treatment would have been better. Mandatory minimums tend to take away judicial discretion and rely more heavily on prosecutors to decide what charges to bring. That charging power is often used as leverage to persuade defendants to plead guilty to offenses that carry heavier penalties.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed legislation to help rehabilitate nonviolent, low-level drug offenders through treatment, not prison. It was a reasonable effort to prevent crime and recidivism by attacking a key root cause - the craving for drugs. The Justice Policy Institute, a group that advocates for more fairness in drug and sentencing policies, periodically examines how Maryland handles drug offenders. In a recent report, the group found that admissions to drug treatment through the criminal justice system increased by 28 percent from 2000 to 2004, while the number of people sentenced for drug offenses fell by 7 percent. At the same time, however, nearly 90 percent of those sent to prison under mandatory minimum drug laws were African-American.

Legislation sponsored by Del. Curtis S. Anderson and Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, both of Baltimore, could help improve those mixed results by repealing various mandatory minimums for repeat low-level drug offenders. The proposed bills would give judges more explicit authority to bypass prison and order offenders into treatment, presumably halting the cycle of their supporting their habit by repeatedly committing petty crimes that might escalate. More treatment slots will also be needed to satisfy the increased demand.

The Senate bill is being considered at a committee hearing today and the House bill is scheduled for a committee vote this week. In both houses, a majority should say yes.

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