Bill on drug offenders fails

Delegates vote against making second-time felons eligible for parole

March 24, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

After a fierce debate in which some lawmakers raised concerns about the effectiveness of the nation's war on drugs, the Maryland House of Delegates defeated by one vote a bill to allow some second-time drug offenders to become eligible for parole.

Lawmakers opposing the measure, which failed 68-69, said it would reward drug dealers and gang members while making communities more dangerous.

"They are going to get more lenient treatment under the provision of this bill," said Del Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland. "I suggest our citizens are not willing to hand down rewards for drug dealers who are preying on our children. This is bad policy, serious bad policy."

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and lead sponsor of the measure, said the bill was written to offer a treatment option to low-level drug offenders, many of whom tend to be drug users.

Anderson stressed that the bill would affect only second-time offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years in jail. Such offenders would be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence, he said. Parole boards have the discretion of referring offenders to treatment.

"Our citizens are also asking us to come up with a more creative response to the drug problem in our communities," Anderson said. "For the last 40 years, we have tried to incarcerate our way out of the problem, and it really hasn't worked. For 40 years, we have increased the penalties and the prison population continues to grow. But the problem also continues to grow."

Other lawmakers used the bill as an opportunity to speak out against what they called unjust mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws.

Del. Doyle L. Niemann, a Democrat from Prince George's County, said the sentencing provisions disproportionately hurt African-American communities and do little to win the drug war.

"Having prosecuted people under this law, I will tell you this does not make sense," he said. "They are selling $10 rocks of crack cocaine. These are not big-time drug dealers. They are not the gangs. There are other laws for kingpins. This does not affect them."

In its original form, the legislation would have allowed judges discretion in sentencing repeat offenders who commit certain drug crimes. But lawmakers said the provisions were too lenient and amended the bill to address parole provisions and exempted offenders convicted of violent crimes.

Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, criticized lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee who advanced the bill, saying it represented a trend of soft-on-crime measures being considered by that body.

"It's crystal clear ... we are having early-release mania," he said. "We are finding loopholes and making them bigger. The people back home don't want this. We need to send them a message that you are down here to protect public safety and to protect victims of crime."

Anderson said he plans to push for the House to reconsider the bill when it convenes today. Lawmakers would have to agree by a simple majority vote to reconsider the bill. Anderson said he hopes to convince a few of his colleagues to support the bill. He said he thinks it could have passed yesterday, but several supportive lawmakers were absent.

"It's a difficult process, sometimes you don't explain yourself as forcefully as you need to," he said. "It's clearly an issue we need to look at."

Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat who voted against the legislation, said he doesn't plan on reconsidering his position.

"In my district there are so many victims of crimes of repeat drug offenders," he said. "I'm all for expanded drug treatment in jail. But I won't change my mind on this."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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