Criminal justice reforms gain support of liberals and conservatives

Shank, Hough proposed pilot programs to reduce recidivism for former prison inmates and create fairer sanctions

February 11, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |
  • In Annapolis on Thursday, Sen. Christopher B. Shank, left, talks about legislation he worked on with Del. Michael J. Hough, foreground center, and Del. Susan K. McComas, foreground right.
By Andrew Schotz, Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS — In a rare occurrence, criminal justice reforms proposed by two Washington County delegation Republicans have both conservative and liberal support.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, and Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, have proposed pilot programs to reduce recidivism for former prison inmates and create fairer sanctions, which they say will improve justice and cut costs.

One bill would allow the state to administratively punish someone for violating parole or probation. Under the current system, offenders wait months for violation hearings in court for relatively minor offenses such as failing a drug test or having a problem getting a job, Hough said.

Punishment would be on a graduated scale, depending on the violation.

"We want to punish these people but we don't want to fill up our prisons with people on technical violations," he said.

The second bill calls for the state to look more closely at offenders' needs and risks to determine how to keep them from committing more crimes.

Shank said the trend in recent decades — locking up as many people as possible — isn't working and is stressing the prison system without decreasing crime.

For years, conservatives opposed throwing money at problems, but didn't follow that philosophy for public safety, Hough said.

Hough is sponsoring the "swift and certain sanctions" bill.

Del. Susan K. McComas, R-Harford, is the lead House sponsor of the recidivism bill.

Shank is sponsoring both bills in the Senate.

On the "swift and certain sanctions" bill, Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore City, is a lead sponsor with him.

Gladden, a public defender, said the package adds accountability to current law.

 "It asks the probationer to do something and produce something," she said.

The concepts in the bills already exist, but aren't practiced much, she said.

Joking about being at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Shank, Gladden said, "I think he's seeing the light."

The proposed legislation is also bringing together other groups that rarely agree on issues. On the right, Americans for Tax Reform and the American Legislative Exchange Council, and,  on the left, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland,  support the bills, the sponsors said.

Melissa Goemann, the legislative director of the ACLU of Maryland, said the group likes the idea of reducing the "bloated prison population," which disproportionately affects minorities.

Shank said this is the first time the ACLU has supported one of his bills as a senator or delegate.

"I very rarely ever see eye to eye with them on most issues," he said.

Jason Fenster of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said the bills present common-sense reforms that would save millions of dollars.

Shank said Hawaii and Texas have used similar measures to improve their criminal justice systems. Texas saved $2 billion in prison costs in five years, and crime dropped 10 percent, he said.

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