When the Maryland General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 9, it will feature a record 72 female elected officials, sexual harassment training in the first week from Tina Tchen, a former aide to first lady Michelle Obama, and, of course, efforts to balance the state budget.
With hundreds of pieces of legislation scheduled to be reviewed, ridiculed and accepted during the 90-day session, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, which comprises about 40 percent of the Democratic slate, also outlined its annual “priority agenda” focused on education, health care and criminal justice.
Delegate Diana Fennell (D-District 47A) of Colmar Manor will lead an economic push on “Fight for $15” legislation to increase that dollar amount as the state’s hourly minimum wage. Instead of writing the statue for implementation in 2023, the goal would now be 2022. She continues to work on crafting the bill scheduled to be introduced next week.
“We really need it because there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay rent, their utilities,” she said. “We are trying … to get it done.”
One major item lawmakers plan to keep an eye on will be the pending lawsuit by the four Maryland historically Black colleges and universities against the state.
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, heard from lawyers on both sides Dec. 11 on whether the state has adequately funded the state’s HBCUs — Bowie State, Coppin State, Morgan State and Maryland Eastern Shore.
A judge’s decision could be made during the Maryland legislative session.
“The Black Caucus has been intricately involved in speaking to the HBCU presidents and attorneys with the governor’s office,” said Delegate Darryl Barnes (D-District 25) of Upper Marlboro, who also chairs the Black Caucus. “Conversations have been meaningful and we are moving the ball forward. If things work out the way we are looking, it should be a win for our HBCUs.”
A spokeswoman from the state’s Higher Education Commission, the agency named in the suit, declined comment because the case is currently in litigation.
Some HBCU students and alumni and supporters rallied outside the State House in Annapolis last month to urge Gov. Larry Hogan to drop the state’s appeal to the suit. They also signed petitions to give Hogan as he hosted a holiday party at the governor’s mansion.
Maryland HBCUs Matters Coalition and other advocates have estimated at least $1 billion to fully and equally fund the four schools, compared to settlement of $100 million over a 10-year period that Hogan offered in February 2018. Hogan’s deal equates to $2.5 million per year for each of the schools.
One reason HBCU advocates still claim inequity stemmed from last session’s budget discussions in the General Assembly.
Operating funds for the four HBCUs estimated at $223 million. However, the University of Maryland in College Park got nearly $502 million, more than double the amount of all the HBCUs combined.
“Most people think of Maryland as a liberal state with more than double the number of Democrats,” said Marvin Cheatham, founder of the coalition. “Democrats have done little to nothing with this particular case. If the court rules in our favor, we’ll see who really supports HBCUs.”
The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit advocacy group of criminal justice reform based in Northwest, researched how Blacks are five times as likely to go to prison compared to Whites.
The project posted a digital graph on its website to highlight the national average of state imprisonment rates sits 471 per 100,000 residents.
Maryland ranked near the bottom at 346 per 100,000 residents. Neighboring states of Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia had higher rates, according to 2016 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Meanwhile, Delegate Erek Barron (D-District 24) of Mitchellville seeks to break that cycle of incarceration through the expungement process. He briefly explained what Maryland law doesn’t allow.
For instance, authorities charge a person with three offenses. If that person pleads guilty to one of them, then all three cannot be expunged.
Simply put: state law doesn’t allow multiple non-conviction offenses to become expunged when connected to one guilty charge.
“These non-convictions would be otherwise expungable in any other circumstance,” said Barron, who’s worked on this legislation for about four years. “This could have a real major effect on people [seeking] job, housing and employment prospects.”
Expungement laws vary in each state. New Jersey residents and returning citizens can petition to expunge up to four offenses that occurred in a short time frame. However, it could be granted only if that person hasn’t been convicted of any prior or subsequent offense. Gov. Chris Christie signed the bipartisan legislation in December 2017.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolfe signed legislation in June to automatically seal records of low-level misdemeanors and other minor offenses. The law doesn’t expunge convictions and when sealed after a 10-year period, the records could still be viewed by police and lawyers.
As for Maryland, Barron hopes the Black Caucus succeeds in the passage of a myriad of bills, especially after federal lawmakers recently approved bipartisan criminal justice reform known as The First Act.
“I am hoping with that kind of momentum, we can continue in a bipartisan way to get people substance abuse and mental health treatment that they need, decriminalize addiction and poverty and mental health, [and] reduce incarceration rates while at the same time enhancing public safety,” he said.