CommunityWilliam J. Ford

Lawmakers Recommend Improvement for Md. Courts, Criminal Justice System

A Maryland work group created to assess the state’s court and criminal justice systems offered recommendations to improve policies and procedures affecting Blacks and Latinos during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of those recommendations for the executive and judicial branches include expediating parole of all nonviolent inmates, allow free phone calls and video communication for inmates with their attorneys and family members, and all state prison and local jails provide adequate masks, soap and other sanitary resources for staff and inmates.

“A lot of these things they’re already giving lip service to doing,” state Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City), leader of the five-member work group, said in an interview Friday, Aug. 14. “What we want to do is encourage [court and prison officials] them to ramp up the efforts and also encourage more transparency.”

Carter and four other members of the group — Sens. Jeff Waldstreicher, Michael Hough, Susan Lee and Justin Ready — held four meetings since May 7 on recidivism and improvement in the court system during the pandemic. The senators are members of the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings and received verbal and written comments from advocacy groups, state and local attorneys, among others.

Although the report only outlines various proposals, the agreement went along party lines.

The report states Democratic lawmakers Carter, Lee and Waldstreicher supported the document, but the two Republicans, Ready and Hough, dissented on all 19 recommendations.

Ready said in an interview Monday, Aug. 17 that one recommendation he was fine with was the courts giving priority to scheduled hearings for plea agreements.

However, he didn’t support recommendation number four: “Courts should not issue bench warrants or body attachments or impose any other sanction for failure to appear in a court proceeding during the pandemic or while the governor’s emergency declaration is in effect.”

“I don’t agree with that. Why does COVID-19 mean you don’t have to show up in court?” said Ready, who represents Carroll County. “The assumption was we are not doing enough. My thing is, ‘Hey, we should look at common sense ways to keep people safe.’ Some of the recommendations went a little too far.”

Another proposal insists that the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services post testing data twice a week instead of just once. The latest figures from Friday, Aug. 14 show that out of 19,285 inmates tested, roughly 680 received confirmed positive results, eight of whom died.

The report also recommends the department highlight protocols for treating and housing people who test positive, methods used to reinforce procedures and a person’s age, gender, race, ethnicity and scheduled parole eligibility date.

A few recommendations to decrease the state prison population call for the governor to modify an April 18 executive order that includes the expedited parole or furloughs of all nonviolent inmates, assessment of all “medically vulnerable” inmates and possible early release of those with fewer than six months remaining in their sentences.

Another proposal advocacy groups such as the ACLU of Maryland have requested would allow adult inmates and youth in juvenile detention centers to spend more than one hour per day outside.

“The workgroup is concerned that social distancing policies — specifically those that result in prolonged periods of isolation — may result in physical and psychological harm to inmates,” according to the report. “For this reason, the workgroup recommends that DPSCS, each local correctional facility and DJS work to maximize the amount of time that individuals in custody are able to spend outside of a cell or confined indoor area.”

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