Feds Push Return to ‘Drug War’, Maryland Officials Back Justice Reinvestment

In 2016 the Maryland General Assembly passed and the Governor signed the Justice Reinvestment Act into law. The Act sought to reform the criminal justice system, reduce needless correctional spending (saving the state millions), and reinvest savings into more efficient programs that reduce recidivism and improve criminal justice outcomes. Provisions of the Act supported state efforts to focus on treatment rather than incarceration for individuals suffering from addiction as the state remains in the grips of a heroin and opioid crisis.

A directive issued recently by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructs federal prosecutors to pursue harsher penalties for low-level crimes committed by drug abusers. State officials in Maryland involved in the Justice Reinvestment have expressed criticism of the new directive and the administration has expressed that the directive would not change the direction of state policy.

As reported in The Baltimore Sun:

In a memo released Friday, Sessions instructed Justice Department lawyers to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” By definition, he added, the most serious offenses “carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”

The Sessions memo runs counter to the principles that prompted Maryland to enact the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2016. The law, passed with bipartisan majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and signed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, seeks to reduce incarceration and redirect the financial savings into treatment for offenders. It also backs off mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said Sessions’ direction to federal law enforcement officials “does not impact Maryland state law or Hogan administration policies.” She said the administration understands that solving the heroin and opioid overdose crisis requires a “multi-pronged strategy,” including providing treatment and a second chance for people convicted of minor drug crimes.

State lawmakers involved with crafting and passing the Justice Reinvestment Act were sharply critical of Sessions’ order.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee and an architect of the Maryland law, called Sessions’ move “outrageous.”

“Basically, the War on Drugs didn’t work, and to think that our attorney general is possibly going back to that is just incomprehensible,” the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Republican Sen. Michael J. Hough, of Frederick County, said he hadn’t read Sessions’ order but probably would disagree with him on the use of mandatory minimums. He said the burden should fall on Congress to follow the approach Maryland and more than 30 other states have taken.

“The policy we adopted in Maryland is really great and I wish the feds would adopt it,” said Hough, who sits on Judicial Proceedings Committee.

To learn more read the full article in The Baltimore Sun

Related coverage on Conduit Street:

Justice Reinvestment Oversight Board Briefed on Opioids, Implementation

Governor Signs Justice Reinvestment Act

General Assembly Passes Justice Reinvestment Act