In challenging Larry Hogan, Ben Jealous details decarceration goals

Criminal justice reform is at the forefront in Maryland, where Republican Governor Larry Hogan is running against Ben Jealous, the Democratic nominee and former head of the NAACP. Jealous has released a detailed and ambitious platform that outlines how he would overhaul Maryland’s criminal justice system and reduce its prison population by 30 percent.

Jealous’s plan calls for reversing “the advent of so-called tough on crime policies” by shifting resources currently used to incarcerate people unto education, treatment, and re-entry programs. He proposes curbing sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums, legalizing marijuana, and easing people’s ability to obtain parole and expunge their records. The plan also sets a goal of reducing pretrial detentions by building on a 2017 judicial ruling that curbed the use of cash bail but also increased the number of people held without bail.

An interesting feature of this document is that it repeatedly frames reform proposals as a way of bringing to Maryland practices already implemented elsewhere. For instance, it calls for emulating Delaware by establishing an Innocence Project that reviews convictions, Missouri by requiring that the costs associated with a judicial sentence be made public, and New York by creating new restrictions on police profiling and independent reviews for police officers.

“This race for governor in Maryland is probably one of our most significant opportunities for change in criminal justice policy in the state in some time,” Larry Stafford Jr., the executive director of the advocacy group Progressive Maryland, told me. He notes that Maryland took an important step in 2016 with the Justice Reinvestment Act, which the legislature adopted and Hogan signed. The act ended some mandatory minimum sentences, strengthened diversion opportunities, and enabled sentence reductions, helping decrease the state’s prison population. But “there’s a serious movement to take us back” toward “regressive conservative policies and crackdown policies,” Stafford warned.

In April, Maryland adopted a law that created new mandatory minimums. Yale University’s James Forman Jr. argued in a Baltimore Sun op-ed that mandatory minimum sentences “do not prevent or deter crime” but “exacerbate racial disparities in incarceration rates.”

Stafford points to the influence of Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat who leads the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee and who helped push through this legislation. In the current legislative session, Zirkin also shepherded a bill to overturn the judicial rule curtailing the use of cash bail; the Senate adopted it, but not the House of Delegates. Zirkin and Hogan “are working hand in hand on a lot of things” but “Ben Jealous as governor may make the designs of Bobby Zirkin very difficult to achieve,” Stafford says.


update (Nov. 11): Governor Larry Hogan won reelection on Nov. 6.