O'Malley's veto a big setback to drug reform

May 20, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

Six weeks ago, it looked as if the governor of Maryland was willing to inject some common sense into the costly and asinine war on drugs. Instead of forcing low-level drug dealers to serve a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison -- at a cost to Maryland taxpayers of $24,000 a year -- O'Malley appeared to support parole for these offenders after a couple of years behind bars.

The change would have applied only to nonviolent offenders. It was aimed at the dealer-user -- that is, the drug addict who sells dope to maintain his own habit.

Opening up the possibility of parole would have given judges some flexibility in how they handle these men and women, who need a clinic, not a prison.

For the past 25 years, there has been little room for such judicial discretion.

Get-tough, mandatory minimums are hallmarks of the war on drugs -- and among leading factors in the tripling of Maryland's prison population since 1980. The state says 70 percent of inmates are in prison for crimes in some way related to drugs.

With such sentencing policies at the state and federal levels, the United States has achieved distinction as the nation with the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world, and yet the demand for heroin and cocaine remains, and our recidivism rate holds at about 50 percent.

Recognizing the failure and costliness of this approach, reformers in Annapolis wanted to give judges the discretion to grant parole to some nonviolent offenders.

This repeal would not have freed drug kingpins.

It was aimed at the user-dealers -- mostly poor, mostly African-American men and women who sell for the kingpins. The possibility of parole would have given them incentive for behaving better, for making an effort to get into treatment and stay clean.

Still, in the allegedly liberal blue state of Maryland, this minor repeal met stiff opposition.

"The rocky ride of this legislation speaks volumes to how hard it is to finish the `treatment, not jails' agenda," said Jason Ziedenberg, who tracked this reform effort in his job at the Justice Policy Institute in Washington. "Even with Democrats in all three branches [of Maryland government], a minor, minor change to sentencing laws [became] the most controversial legislation of the session."

The measure passed, heavily amended. It would have made a second-time offender eligible for parole after serving half his 10-year sentence. That was hardly a drastic repeal of the mandatory minimums.

Still, Republicans called on O'Malley to veto it, along with three other bills, which they decried as evidence of the General Assembly's swing to the left.

But, as The Sun's Andy Green reported in early April, the Democratic governor wasn't inclined to veto any of the bills.

"The governor is on record supporting those initiatives," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. Green reported that the governor "backs possible parole for second-time drug offenders so that the system has more flexibility than mandatory minimum sentences allow."

What happened?

O'Malley changed his mind.

Last week, he vetoed the measure, with a dash of political posturing, saying on a radio show that "drug-dealing is a violent crime" that needs to be punished.

His office issued a statement explaining the veto, and it pretty much gave me a headache -- a long hem-and-haw to justify deep-sixing a modest proposal that might have started to pull us away from the mandatory minimums that eliminate judicial discretion and keep nonviolent, drug-dealing addicts in Maryland prisons at $24,000 a year.

Several people involved in the long, difficult process of winning approval for this bill expressed surprise and disappointment at O'Malley, and Ziedenberg called it "a failure of opportunity and a failure of leadership."

O'Malley claims to support reforms that would steer more drug defendants to treatment instead of incarceration.

But then you see weird stuff like this -- veto of the narrowest of reforms -- and wonder what's up. Other governors are looking for ways to reduce prison populations and stem the demand that fuels the market for drugs. O'Malley seems to be concerned that approval of this baby-step repeal would have diminished the tough-on-crime profile he established while mayor of Baltimore.

"It's just as effective to get smart on crime as it is to get tough on crime," says Lori Albin, legislative director for the Office of the Public Defender.

Marylanders are hip to this. Public opinion polls indicate that 65 percent to 75 percent of Americans believe drug addicts should receive treatment, not prison time. In June 2006, OpinionWorks of Annapolis released a survey of more than 1,000 Marylanders and found 67 percent supporting treatment over incarceration.

Yet according to the Justice Policy Institute, Maryland spends about 26 cents on drug addict treatment for every dollar we spend on drug addict incarceration. And the Drug Policy Alliance reports that, in the 1980s and 1990s, the height of the war on drugs, spending on prisons grew at four times the rate of our spending on higher education.

O'Malley put $5 million more in treatment funds in his first budget as governor -- better than nothing, and slightly better than what his Republican predecessor came up with. But, in the fourth-wealthiest state in the nation, that's hardly enough to move the punitive war on drugs into the therapeutic crusade against drug addiction that would be more effective and actually improve public safety.

Men and women with criminal records may obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by contacting columnist Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or at dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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