ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s proposal for a new criminal diversion and drug treatment plan received preliminary approval Thursday from the Senate, which is scheduled to vote on the measure today.
The plan would send non-violent criminal offenders who meet eligibility requirements to drug or alcohol treatment, postponing judgment until they successfully complete a state-approved program.
“Locking up people for drug offenses without treatment is not working,” said Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, who led subcommittee deliberations on the measure. “There should be an alternative to that.”
A non-violent offender must be evaluated as a substance abuser and have approval from the state’s attorney and judge before entering a program. Certain prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes and selected by the parole commission would be eligible for parole to a treatment program after meeting similar requirements.
After successful treatment, a judge could dismiss charges against an offender or strike a judgment from a parolee’s record.
The House of Delegates passed a similar version of the measure last week and Green expects the Senate to follow suit today.
Of the 24,000 people incarcerated in Maryland jails, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services estimates 90 percent of them are “substance abuse-involved,” said Jacqueline Lampell, a department spokeswoman.
“Diverting people out of our system obviously helps us with crowding issues and also would help us with keeping people from re-offending and recidivating,” Lampell said, adding that the department supports the proposal.
A joint effort among the administration, the judiciary, the state’s attorney’s office and the Legislative Black Caucus, the Senate bill was amended 16 times to narrow the scope of eligible offenders, define the discretionary powers of the state’s attorneys and judges, and place the responsibility for evaluation and treatment of participants with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The department, which received a $5.8 million appropriation for drug treatment in the governor’s proposed budget, is confident there will be sufficient resources to treat offenders coming into the program, said Peter Luongo, director of the department’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.
The Senate bill also adds a trigger provision – a major deviation from the House version – to require a minimum $3 million funding level for the bill to take effect.
The money is expected to be available, said Henry Fawell, Ehrlich’s spokesman, despite the state’s fiscal problems.
House Judiciary Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, said the committee was assured money would be budgeted, and the trigger would be worked out in conference committee.
“It will be the most significant piece of legislation that comes out this year with respect to crime and punishment,” Vallario said.