Criminal Justice Reform

_AshwaniJain
13 min readJan 27, 2021

Introduction:

When Black and Brown kids are afraid to go outside and put their hands in their pocket, afraid to stay inside and sleep in their beds, afraid to drive their cars or walk in the streets — then we clearly have a severe problem with our criminal justice system.

And while most who go into law enforcement are true public servants, this is one of those fields where the stakes are too high for things to go wrong. So when some officers are no longer able to “protect and serve” and when arrests turn into murder, disproportionately affecting people of color and low-income communities, then measures need to be put in place to ensure better accountability, transparency and training.

And since there is no singular solution to keep communities safe and improve community trust — I believe we need to tackle the entire criminal system in a comprehensive and sincere manner. In doing so, we can improve community trust, make our communities safer and achieve greater equity.

It’s also important to note that increasing accountability and transparency in our systems does not negate the great community work and safety provided by a majority of our officers. Rather, it improves the system so it works better for everyone.

Here is what my Relief, Recovery, and Reform platform will accomplish:

RELIEF

Treat Drug/Opioid Abuse as a Public Health Crisis

We need to treat drug use and addiction for what it truly is — not a crime that can be corrected with punishment, but a public health crisis requiring support for those suffering.

Criminalizing opioid addiction disproportionately affects low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color. We can move past the scourge of drug use in our communities across Maryland, but we need to do it through support for those most in need, rather than pushing those in need to have to hide their problem.

While we should not legalize scheduled drugs (like cocaine, heroin and meth), we need to decriminalize the possession of them for personal use. Instead of criminally penalizing these individuals, we must send them to rehab centers to address the addiction directly.

This will allow drug users to get out of the shadows and seek help.

And as outlined in the Healthcare section, I support dedicated funding for non-profits and rehab centers that address this issue for those that need help; as well as working with local agencies and leaders to increase access to necessary resources.

As we move forward, we must learn from our mistakes that brought us to the opioid crisis. We need to build supportive and open communities and take care of our neighbors when they are in need. This starts by having government institutional structures that can provide these resources and set that example — something I fully intend on building out as Governor.

Legalize Marijuana and Expunge Records

Possession of 10 grams or less is already decriminalized in Maryland(so you can’t be penalized criminally). But I want to expand this to make total possession (regardless of quantity) decriminalized, as well as make it legalized (to make it fully accessible and taxable).

Marijuana has proven to be significantly less dangerous than alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs/opioids. As such, I believe in legalzing it to generate significant revenue for our state, as well as to provide more racial justice in our criminal justice systems (since Black residents are arrested at higher rates and given harsher sentences than white residents for possession).

Part of this process will also be to expunge records from MVA files, police files and court files.

Additionally, by beginning/increasing cultivation to arable land in locations like Frederick county, the Upper Eastern Shore and even urban farms in Baltimore City, we can boost our agriculture sector and increase revenues for our local and state economy. And to offset some of the very high production costs and ensure more small farmers are able to participate in this economic opportunity, we could expand Enterprise/Opportunity Zones (which include tax credits and incentives) to farmers who participate.

Eliminate School Resource Officers

SROs are on-duty local police officers, staffed to school buildings through agreements between police departments and county schools.

While law enforcement officers are important in keeping our cities safe — with increased accountability and transparency in their actions — I do not believe they should have a presence within our schools.

Our schools should not feel like a prison, and our students should not be policed. In fact, given the right resources — and the proper approach — our schools can become an ideal place of intervention.

Policing in schools has proven to disproportionately target students of color and students with disabilities. Statistically, they have also proven to not decrease crime or make schools safer.

As such, by removing SROs and having more school psychologists/counselors (who are better able to identify and address problems before they become issues), we can ensure our schools remain safe and positive environments, as well as help those who need it most.

And if individual schools believe they still need a public safety officer, we can look into training school security personnel — who are direct employees of the school district, now official law enforcement officers, and are unarmed.

Ban chokeholds

Right now there is a lack of trust between communities all around Maryland and our law enforcement professionals. We must change that. While there is no quick solution, we must be patient and intentional about moving forward.

This means we need to implement policing standards that will show our communities that officers who abuse their power can and will be held accountable. This is why I want to listen to activists in their calls to ban the use of chokeholds and require de-escalation efforts in any confrontations and creating real consequences for officers that fail to live up to these standards.

End Money-Bail

We need to stop criminalizing poverty. I believe that we cannot end mass incarceration without first ending the money-bail system. I believe this is an ineffective, unfair, and racist way of approaching our prison system.

More often than not, the people most likely to spend time in jail awaiting trial are not the worst offenders, but the poorest ones. These are folks who do not necessarily pose a risk to society, and can lead to real negative effects for these individuals from lost jobs to predatory bail bond debt.

Instead of penalizing and further criminalizing individuals because of their ability to afford cash bail, we should require judges to rely more heavily on risk assessments in pretrial decisions. This will not only remove implicit bias that may occur when determining a defendants’ status, but will ultimately provide greater transparency and accountability to the system.

These risk assessments will be more objective and mathematical in nature, using court and demographic records (that assess things as criminal history, job status, level of education) and assigning each a numerical value that add together to provide a final score (similar to how our banks determine our credit scores). Judges would then use this score to determine a defendants’ risk factors.

Similar reforms implemented by D.C. have proven that defendant’s rates of appearance for trial have either been similar or increased, thus negating the idea that removing the money-bail requirement would endanger the public or increase rearrest rates.

End Solitary Confinement

It has proven to increase violent behaviors rather than decrease it as it is intended to. It can also cause psychological harm, especially to those suffering from mental illnesses. As Governor, I will ensure Maryland prisons do not employ this practice.

End Extreme Sentences for children

While 23 states have abolished extreme sentencing for children — such as life without the possibility of parole — in Maryland, over 200 people are currently incarcerated who were sentenced in their youth to life in prison. On top of this sickening statistic lies the fact that three-quarters of those 200 Marylanders who received life sentences in their youth are African American, pointing to a large racial bias. We must eliminate this practice, and I pledge to do so as Governor.

More Social Workers

We should reallocate public safety funding to expand necessary services that would reduce police officer’s need to respond to incidents with a mentally ill individual or involving ongoing social work issues. This will involve growing our workforce of social workers and ensuring that those suffering from addiction have access to professionals that can support them in dealing with their substance abuse problem. This can help people having a mental health crisis get the help they need rather than put them in harm’s way.

Gun Safety

I’m sick and tired that candidates and politicians will still call for “thoughts and prayers” but refuse to release specific gun-safety legislation that can stop these tragedies in the future.

In 2018, I hosted a student-run Gun Safety workshop after the Parkland shooting to support SB707 which would ban rapid-trigger devices in Maryland and keep guns away from domestic abusers. Our efforts were successful, and the bill later became law. https://tinyurl.com/y34m9ln7. But more can be done.

Part of the solution — in Maryland — is reforming our entire Criminal Justice system (meaning replacing SROs in public schools with school security personnel hired by school boards and more guidance counselors and social workers to get to the root causes of the issues we face); banning ghost guns; supporting red flag laws; AND closing the loophole to ensure all gun owners (even those with rifles/shotguns) get a permit.

Every constitutional right we have is regulated to some degree, especially when personal choices impeded on public safety (ex. we have freedom of speech but cannot shout “fire” in a crowded place). These regulations actually help strengthen and protect these rights for all of us. And when they fail to do so, our Constitution has been updated (i.e. The Bill of Rights).

As such, our Second Amendment is no different. While we can protect an individual’s right to “bear arms”, we need to ensure this does not come at the expense of public safety. With the historic level of gun violence in our country, it is not unreasonable to ban certain military-grade firearms and to require people to get a permit to own firearms (just as we require folks to get a driver’s license to operate a vehicle).

These common-sense measures will not only help reduce the risks of a non-law abiding resident from obtaining a weapon, but also ensure greater safety around firearms.

End For-Profit Prisons

Adding to my previously proposed policies to decriminalize addiction, legalize recreational marijuana while expunging records of those wrongfully imprisoned, and improve sentencing procedures in a people-first fashion — I believe we need to end the possibility of for-profit prison contracts.

The Issue:

  • Across the US, many of our states have contracts with private companies to run (and profit off of) prisons. These private, or “for profit”, prison contracts cover everything from liability, to staffing, to medical care, to facility costs, to nutrition, and even a promise to keep for-profit prisons full. These contracts are agreements between states and private prison corporations, in which the state will supply both money and incarcerated people to the corporation. In return, the corporation will maintain the facility and the care of those people. The corporation that runs the facility will often use cuts to programming, nutrition, or even medical care in order to maintain profitability.
  • As such, there is a clear incentive to INCREASE incarceration rates — which is a backward and wrong mentality to have. Our goal as a state should be to lower crime rates, and improve recidivism rates. We want fewer people to commit crimes, fewer people to reoffend, and less of our budget going towards maintaining jails, prisons, and inmate care. The for-profit/private model goes directly against those interests.

Background

  • MD currently has 24 correctional and detention facilities, outside of county jails. These facilities are run through the state, headed by DCSPS. As of August 20th, 2021, Maryland does not have any private prison contracts for facilities at the state level. This means that not only are we in a great position to prevent the creation of future contracts with private prisons in our state, but we do not risk job loss, facility closure, or funding issues from initiating these changes.
  • Ending the possibility of for profit prison contracts will also save future tax dollars. Maryland has a relatively low prison population compared to the rest of the country. Privatized prisons were designed for larger scale overflow, and are not cost effective for smaller populations. Not only that, but it truly is a get what you pay for scenario. The money saved on privatization directly affects recidivism, by forcing the private company to find ways to avoid costs related to care and management of the people they house.

Next Steps

  • Since we currently do not have any more state-level contracts with private prisons, we can quickly and easily move forward with preventing their future use as well. Not having existing facilities means no risk of job loss at the state level, no cost for transportation of inmates, no rebalancing of the budget. This measure is preventative, and helps to safeguard our future.
  • Passing legislation that prevents the use of private prison contracts at the state level in Maryland will protect our citizens’ rights, prevent incentives for undue high arrest rates, and will help to keep money out of our judicial system.

RECOVERY

Prepare those in prison for release

When someone has completed their time in prison, we need to ensure that we help set them up to be as successful as possible in reentering society.

If our justice system is truly doing its job, it would be doing everything possible to rehabilitate offenders and prepare them to return to society in a sustainable and successful way. This would reduce recidivism and allow people to live better, healthier lives.

However, between court-mandated fines, fees and applications, let alone struggling to even get a new form of identification that is widely accepted, many ex-offenders have an extremely difficult time with reentry. Furthermore, when people return home, the system is practically set up to lead people back to prison.

  • When they are returning from prison they need housing but can be excluded from Section 8 support;
  • They need a job, but can be discriminated against by employers;
  • They need healthcare, but can suffer from a gap in coverage when excluded from Medicaid during their time in prison;
  • And if they want to start a new path and pursue higher education opportunities, they cannot qualify for Pell Grants during their time of incarceration.

People’s time incarcerated should give them access to opportunities to right their path, not set them back to make it that much harder to get by. That’s why I want to build a new justice system on the foundation of rehabilitation over just locking people away.

By expanding vocational programs in prisons and drafting contracts with temp agencies and community colleges to use their employment services department, we can really help those being released have a easier transition back into society.

Additionally, by guaranteeing affordable housing and access to good jobs and a reduced cost of living (via the Maryland Now Plan), we can ensure a sustainable and more equitable future for these individuals.

Body Cameras

Body cameras are not going to solve our problem overnight. They are not going to stop police brutality nor will their use automatically rebuild community trust. That said, they are an important tool that we can use to hold police officers accountable. This is why must move on from the 2015 Commission Regarding the Implementation and Use of Body Cameras by Law Enforcement Officers and move toward making body camera usage a regular and expected occurrence among Maryland law enforcement.

There are numerous additional reforms we must include in mandating body camera use, including access to the footage by key oversight officials and subjects of the footage, ensuring officers are not allowed to view the footage before any disciplinary review, and ensuring that privacy laws are updated to protect those recorded in this footage.

Independent Oversight

Another important reform to ensure police accountability is the formation of independent investigatory bodies for police misconduct and police involved shootings as well as independent prosecution.

These bodies should include an independent special prosecutor’s office that should be required to prosecute all cases where a police officer kills or seriously injures someone, especially in cases where a death occurs to someone in police custody. They should have the resources to investigate and report their findings to the public so our communities can trust the process that will ensure our police officers are held to the highest standard.

Likewise, communities should feel that they have a way to provide direct input and accountability that will be heard and acted on. That is why I want to provide resources for our localities to establish panels for community members to review police policies, provide disciplinary recommendations, and ensure community voices have a say in how they are policed.

I believe that police departments should make it regular practice to field surveys in the communities they serve to ensure they are adapting to the needs of their communities. These survey answers should be acted on to determine how departments can better serve, including investigating any misconduct reported through such surveys.

Finally, when it comes to a specific example of local oversight, I believe it is well past time that we return Baltimore City Police Department to the oversight of the elected city leaders of Baltimore. This will ensure that they are overseen by their community directly, rather than by the Maryland General Assembly broadly.

Limit ICE’s influence

  • Unless individuals have violated State criminal laws or are under the authority of criminal warrants issued by the state or federal judges, I do not believe we should be working with ICE to detain/house non-violent individuals who have been placed in ICE custody.
  • Furthermore, any requests made by ICE or the federal government should be directed, addressed and handled first by a state-run agency (the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services).
  • We must also ensure that our law enforcement agencies do not ask individuals about immigration status or take action simply based on a person’s immigration status.

REFORM

Localize Police Accreditation and Training

A lot of what is in place right now — set by the Police Training and Standards Commission — focuses on agency-wide accreditation. While this is helpful and needed, it does not truly address the issue of ensuring that individual law enforcement officers have the type of training that is needed at a local level.

As such, I believe that — much like accreditation for hospitals and schools — we need police accreditation at local law enforcement agencies to establish professional best-practice standards, as well as ensure the agency is following those standards by conducting a comprehensive onsite assessment.

It’s important to note that this also doesn’t negate the great community work and safety provided by a majority of law enforcement officers — many of whom are well intentioned — but rather ensures they are better able to identify their own implicit biases and improve how they analyze information and react to tense situations.

And while bias won’t be eradicated overnight, better awareness and training is a positive step forward.

Police Union Reform

Like the other reforms mentioned, there is no one solution to repairing the relationship between law enforcement and our communities. I believe in the importance of unions in ensuring a fair environment for workers.

However, reforming how police union contracts are negotiated and what they contain can ensure that we do not have these powerful unions protecting bad officers that are not befitting of their badge and the responsibility it represents.

We must ensure that union contracts do not inhibit the ability for officers to be investigated for misconduct or after deadly use of force. Likewise, we need to ensure our union contracts are not hindering the ability of police departments to hold officers accountable for reported misconduct, their accountability to civilian leadership, or hide officers’ histories of misconduct.

If we are to move forward toward better law enforcement, we need to ensure that departments and civilian leaders are allowed to hold officers accountable without having their hands tied.

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_AshwaniJain

He/Him — Youngest person to run for MD Governor — Cancer Survivor — NKF — Obama White House/HUD/HHS