Top Issues of 2023: Public Safety

The Department of Legislative Services released a 2023 issues preview and three major topics are at the forefront for public safety: police reform, handguns, and corrections trends. 

Police reform has been a major legislative priority in Maryland over the last five years and gained a great deal of momentum in 2020 and 2021, culminating in the passage of the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021. Since the initial passage of this sweeping police reform policy change, subsequent sessions have focused on elements of the roll-out that have brought additional challenges to light. While there is a sentiment to stop tweaking the process from a policy perspective and focus on non-legislative clarifications and adjustments, the DLS report cited three specific areas where policy changes might still be on the table. One of MACo’s four legislative priorities is focused in this area as well and will be a top priority of the policy team during the 2023 session.

In late December, the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission unanimously passed regulations that govern the civilian boards and committees that are the foundation of civilian oversight of police misconduct in all 24 Maryland jurisdictions. There has been a great deal of debate regarding the timing and ease of implementing the regulations and whether or not they are consistent with the spirit of the law where civilian oversight is concerned. DLS suspects this debate could continue throughout the coming legislative session.  Additionally, rules governing the release of body-worn camera footage as it relates to the allowable scope of public information requests and costs are certain to be on the schedule, with MACo representatives in the fray. In this area specifically, the report highlighted the work of the Task Force to Study Public Information Act Requests Made to Law Enforcement that is in charge of reviewing and studying:

  • (1) costs charged by law enforcement agencies in relation to disclosure of records requested under PIA;
  • (2) procedures applied by law enforcement agencies in the disclosure of records requested under PIA; and
  • (3) the status and operations of the Maryland Public Information Act Compliance Board.

The task force must submit to the General 31, 2023, and will likely be informed by more policy suggestions this session.

The DLS preview also highlights the Office of the Attorney General’s potential interest in having a second round of adjustments to the jurisdiction of the Independent Investigations Division that was established in the police reform legislation of 2021, underwent three substantive changes during the 2022 session, and 2023 would represent the third round of attempts by the office to alter the original legislation.

Handgun permitting was another major issue that has been on both the local a national radar since the Supreme Court ruling to established the Bruen precedent that was covered here on the blog this past summer. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, many lower courts in the State and across the nation are attempting to navigate the implications. The “national historical tradition” approach laid out in Bruen created a new legal foundation to reevaluate other firearm-related restrictive laws.

From the report:

Recent litigation topics include the constitutionality of handgun safety requirements, shooting range zoning requirements, age restrictions for possession of certain firearms, fees accompanying certain gun regulations, required background checks for purchasing ammunition, prohibiting the possession of firearms in certain “sensitive areas” such as on public transit, and possession of a firearm with its serial number removed. During the 2023 legislative session, considering the recent developments and uncertainty among the lower courts in applying the new Bruen precedent, Maryland could see legislation attempting to address potential Second Amendment constitutional issues that may exist in current State firearm laws.

Finally, in corrections, similar to public health, the DLS reports have shown to be consistent with other resources with staff and spacing shortages at a time when demand appears to be increasing. While the annual number of offenders in DPSCS custody continued to decline in fiscal 2022, the department’s monthly average inmate population has increased each month since February 2022, which staffing shortages hit the lowest level in recent history.

From the report:

As of October 2022, DPSCS employed approximately 7,723 employees, including 4,826 correctional officers and 756 community supervision agents. Thus, the department has approximately 16% of its authorized positions vacant, reflecting the lowest level of employment in recent history and a net decrease of 286 employees from October 2021. Most (75%) of the drop in employment has been in the correctional officer series, which currently is functioning with a 10% vacancy rate. This increases overtime and raises risks to facility safety and security.

The strain is also being felt on the psychiatric units where inmates with specific behavioral and mental health needs are transferred from local, county level facilities. Due to a shortage of beds and staffing at the state level, inmates requiring transfer to a psychiatrics unit remain in a queue at the local level until beds open up.  Across many policy areas, the 2023 session will likely focus heavy attention on new strategies to recruit and maintain adequate staffing especially in the areas where staffing shortages lead to greater employee risk like corrections.

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