The "life sentence" that people accused of minor, non-violent crimes suffer from has long been a thorn in the side of society. Even a dismissal or acquittal is often not enough to erase the stigma of the criminal record that is created as soon as an individual is involved with the criminal justice system. This record shows up on background checks run by potential employers, landlords, and even schools. The red flag shows up regardless of the date the record was created. It is a scarlet letter that follows people for the rest of their lives.
That is why lawmakers in Maryland joined forces last year to pass measures that give people who were charged – and even some who were convicted – of low-level, non-violent offenses the second chance they earned and deserve. By expanding the number of crimes that qualify for expungement through Expeal or the courthouse, Maryland has effectively given the residents impacted by these measures an opportunity boost equivalent to obtaining a college degree. Governor Larry Hogan's push to go even further this year is as inspirational as it could get and in line with his campaign pledges to help ex-offenders re-enter society as productive members who pay taxes and contribute to the state's growth.
Gov. Hogan can't be given all the credit, however. There has been a growing consensus that crosses the political aisles, both in Maryland as well as in the country as a whole, that the "Tough On Crime" policies that resulted in astonishing incarceration rates from the 1980s to the 1990s and even into the early 2000s did far more harm than good. In fact, in Maryland's largest city, Baltimore City, there were as many as 100,000 people arrest in one year, most for low-level drug offenses and nuisance crimes like loitering, disorderly conduct, or trespassing. Regardless of how minor the charge, the resulting red flag for having a criminal record is just as bad as what pops up for violent felons.
It is those types of crimes that the Maryland legislature wants to remove from a person's background once they've proven that their past is in the past. One measure will add simple drug possession charges to the list of those that are eligible to be fully expunged, not just shielded.
A second measure will add possession with intent to distribute, one of the most common offenses for which people in Maryland are arrested, to the list of charges that are eligible to be shielded or expunged. It is important to note that those who are dealing in large quantities or otherwise involved in a large-scale drug dealing operation will not qualify. Rather, this measure is targeted towards giving those who are addicted and sell small quantities in order to sustain their habit. The government of Marlyand recognizes that this is a health problem rather than a crime problem.
A third measure, and one that will help a large number of people, will be to repeal the "unit rule" which stated that those arrested for multiple offenses committed during one single incident could not shield or expunge their records if one of those offenses did not qualify. Now, a person may be able to remove any of those charges which qualify. This will make candidates that would otherwise show three or four different charges show only one.
These measures are only one part of a larger series of criminal justice reforms that are being proposed, including measures designed to reduce total incarceration rates, to improve oversight of law enforcement, and to require law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.