Facing a narrow defeat for the second year in a row, the sponsor of a plan to reduce penalties for low-level drug dealers withdrew the bill from consideration in the House of Delegates yesterday, effectively killing its chances for passage this year.
Other criminal justice measures dominated much of yesterday's House voting session, as the chamber debated the merits of setting up a commission to study the death penalty in Maryland and passed legislation that would allow DNA collection from those arrested for violent crimes.
The "Smart on Crime" act, Del. Curtis S. Anderson's effort to roll back some of the get-tough policies of the war on drugs, was the subject of intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering and debate for weeks. A similar bill failed by one vote last year, and Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he concluded it would likely fail again.
"There was so much rancor and discussion and demagoguery going on" from opponents, Anderson said before withdrawing the bill. He said his proposal would likely be defeated after an amendment designed to make the legislation more palatable to conservative Democrats failed narrowly Friday evening.
As originally written, Anderson's bill would have made first-time, low-volume drug-selling crimes for nonviolent offenders misdemeanors rather than felonies. It would also have allowed some people convicted of such crimes to receive drug treatment rather than be sentenced to prison.
During several debates on the floor this year, opponents questioned the wisdom of making Maryland the only state in the union for which drug-dealing was not a felony and also said lessening penalties for drug crimes would send the wrong message.
"It seemed to be a soft-on-crime bill rather than a smart-on-crime bill," said Del. Ron George, an Anne Arundel County Republican. He characterized Anderson's attempts to mollify conservative opposition through amendments as "putting more and more lipstick on the same old pig."
But Anderson said he pushed the measure only after holding focus groups with prosecutors, judges and drug addiction treatment providers.
"They all felt we need to move away from jail time for nonviolent offenders and toward treatment," he said. He and other members of the House Judiciary Committee had tried to craft language in the bill that would allow reduced penalties only for drug addicts who support their habit with low-volume drug sales.
"We'll be back next year with a bill addressing some of the issues," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Judiciary Committee chairman, who said he was concerned that if the proposal failed again on the House floor, it would be difficult to revive. "The bill needs a little work."
Anderson said he was "disappointed" but cautiously optimistic about its chances next year. He said Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration has offered to work with him on treatment and incarceration issues over the coming year.
Also yesterday, in a near-unanimous vote, lawmakers gave final approval to a bill that would allow police to collect DNA samples from criminal suspects charged with violent crimes and burglary. An O'Malley priority, the bill was amended in recent days to ease black lawmakers' concerns about how the biological fingerprints might be used.
The Senate is scheduled to take up the bill tomorrow, but it is unclear whether a compromise crafted in the House to satisfy civil libertarians and the Legislative Black Caucus will win favor there.
The House also debated a bill that would create a 19-member commission to study the death penalty in the state. Opponents of capital punishment had hoped that Maryland would follow New Jersey in repealing the death penalty. That state's decision last year followed recommendations developed by a task force similar to the one lawmakers are considering here.
But the General Assembly remained deadlocked on the question of a repeal, as it was last year, when O'Malley testified in favor of ending capital punishment only to see the effort fail in a Senate committee.
Supporters of the death penalty have balked at the effort to set up another study commission, noting that at least three major studies of Maryland's death penalty have been completed in the past six years.
"Why are we studying this again?" Del. Donald B. Elliott, a Carroll and Frederick County Republican, said yesterday.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican from Baltimore and Harford counties, and Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland, also objected to the study bill, saying it lacked a mandate to consider the feelings of murder victims' families and would be dominated by O'Malley appointees.
At O'Donnell's request, the House put off advancing the measure until tomorrow.