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Legislature passes criminal justice reform bill

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Posted at 9:20 PM, Apr 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-11 21:20:37-04

 ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- The General Assembly gave final passage Monday to a comprehensive reform of Maryland's criminal justice system, while a tax-relief plan and a bill to provide sick days for employees of companies with at least 15 employees appeared to be stalled with only hours left in the session.

Lawmakers also were working to finish police reform legislation, as well as a separate bill to expand ignition-locking device requirements to stop drunken drivers.

The criminal justice reform bill was months in the making. The overall goal of the bill is to save money by incarcerating nonviolent inmates less and investing savings in drug treatment. It covers various issues including imprisonment, parole, treatment options, victim restitution and criminal record expungement. The Senate voted 46-0. The House vote was 122-19.

"This is truly a bipartisan effort," said Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He described it as "a game-changer in terms of our criminal justice system."

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said he was very happy with how the bill turned out. At a late-afternoon news conference, the governor was hopeful the modest tax-relief plan would pass. A bill passed by the Senate includes tax cuts to the state's four highest tax brackets as well as tax relief for low-income workers and a small cut for middle-income workers, while the House focuses relief on middle- and low-income workers.

"The great news is for the first time that I can remember in at least a decade we're ending the session with an argument about which taxes to cut and we're just hoping that we get real tax relief," Hogan said.

Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate budget committee, said Monday night that talks had stalled with only about four hours left in the session, which adjourns at midnight. Without a sudden turnaround, the prospects for the package looked shaky.

Supporters of expanding the state's ignition interlock requirements for all drunken drivers were concerned over the weekend that the measure could get tangled up in a push to add punitive damages against drunk drivers. Rich Leotta, the father of a Montgomery County police officer who died when he was hit by a suspected drunk driver while working at a sobriety checkpoint, said he received assurance from two lawmakers leading negotiations to reconcile two versions of the bill that the measure would pass in some form. The bill, called "Noah's Law," is named after his son.

"Clearly, I want the stronger one, but I am thankful that the energies, the sacrifices, are not all in vain," Leotta said.

Lawmakers also will be working to pass a police reform bill. The measure is the product of months of work by a panel that was convened shortly after the Baltimore riots last year following the death of Freddie Gray, who was injured in a Baltimore Police Department van and later died. The bill not only changes policies on how police are disciplined, but also how police are trained and hired. A key difference in bills passed by the House and Senate relates to whether civilians would have voting powers on boards that review complaints against police.

"I'm hopeful that there will be meaningful reforms out of this session, and I'm hoping that it will continue. This is not a one-session project," Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at a news conference with local officials in Annapolis.

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