How Blue-State Democrats Continually Beat Back Reform
As part of TRNN’s in-depth coverage of the legislative session in Maryland’s state capital, we take a quick tally of all the reform proposals that didn’t even get a vote this year
STEPHEN JANIS: This is Annapolis, Maryland. The capital of a blue state that based upon the current legislative session should perhaps be deemed red.
Case in point is this man, Maryland Democrat Bobby Zirkin. Today I tried to interview the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But how he responded during our short encounter is illustrative of how the Democrats talk reform, but often act differently when it comes to governing. Zirkin has been an obstacle to almost every kind of criminal justice reform in the past three years, from restricting cash bail, to placing civilians on internal police disciplinary boards.
DAYVON LOVE: I think what’s really important for the viewers to note is that this bill does combine funding for proactive crime prevention programming which we think is good. One of the things that advocates have said is to separate out the bill, have the funding separate from the sentence enhancements. It’s been made very clear that the leadership here wants them together.
STEPHEN JANIS: So the Real News tried to ask him about recent criticisms that he was holding funding for a cure violence program called Safe Streets to bolster his proposal to add stiff mandatory sentences for gun possession.
So, Senator, so what’s going on with 122? I mean, people say you’re kind of holding other bills, or you’re holding Safe Streets. What’s going on with that?
BOBBY ZIRKIN: That’s a false statement. We have gone through, when you say people, like-
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, advocates-
BOBBY ZIRKIN: Let me ask a question.
STEPHEN JANIS: Okay, sure. Go ahead.
BOBBY ZIRKIN: Shouldn’t you be forced to say, like, who that is? What is your question?
STEPHEN JANIS: No, I’m sorry, I was holding-
BOBBY ZIRKIN: Do you want to ask about the substance? Because I got to go a substantive bill. Right now what I’m focused on is the substance of every piece of legislation that’s down here, as you should be.
STEPHEN JANIS: But what about 122? I mean, are you going to hold up the Safe Streets if people don’t vote for the sentences, mandatory sentences and the other aspects of-
And he seemed reluctant to talk, to say the least.
BOBBY ZIRKIN: It’s a strange question. We don’t have a bill on Safe Streets. Safe Streets is in that bill, so I don’t have any bill that’s related to Safe Streets in our committee. So let me ask you a question, how could I possibly hold that up?
STEPHEN JANIS: I’m just asking-
BOBBY JANIS: I’m asking you. You asked the question.
STEPHEN JANIS: People have said that it’s been put together, that you combined it. That’s what they said.
BOBBY ZIRKIN: We put together a bill that had lots of elements in it. So I’m not sure I understand your question.
STEPHEN JANIS: Zirkin didn’t want to discuss the details, even though critical funding for a reform-oriented program like Safe Streets hangs in the balance. But our conversation, or lack of one, with Zirkin is illustrative of just how difficult it is to make progress in the state capital when it comes to reform.
This session, the Real News has been chronicling a variety of reform proposals, all of which failed to even come up for a vote, including creating safe spaces where heroin users can safely take drugs without threat of arrest.
What happened this year? There was a lot of hope for this, especially with the opioid crisis. What happened?
DAN MORHAM: Unfortunately, the bills didn’t pass. But I’ve been putting them in for the last three years. There’s plenty of evidence-based reports that these things work. And even in the bill hearings we had, I asked the Baltimore County State’s Attorney and Baltimore City police officers how much of crime is drug-related, and their answers were 90 percent. So you have 90 percent of crime related to drug use, which is why we ought to attack the drug use issue head-on, from a public health point of view.
STEPHEN JANIS: Don’t you think it’s one of the best ways to attack the opioid crisis, to have these safe spaces?
DAN MORHAM: It’s not just what I think. It’s in documented studies by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg school of public health, and literature all over. Look, I get that it’s a challenging concept to accept, but when the evidence is there, the data’s there, you need to act occasionally based on actual facts. The actual facts are very clear.
STEPHEN JANIS: Or plans to make it a crime for officers to turn off their body cams.
BILAL ALI: But it seemed like locomotive, or the train that leaves from wherever, Penn Station or Union Station, goes mighty slow in terms of progressive change here in Maryland.
STEPHEN JANIS: Or a ballot initiative, to allow voters to weigh in on whether or not to make marijuana legal for recreational use.
We were allowed to vote on gambling, why weren’t you allowed to vote on marijuana?
CURT ANDERSON: Because the gambling lobby was humongous. I mean, there were interests from all around the country, people who make millions of dollars on gambling, who came to lobby. They started at the top with leadership and worked their way down. And they did it over a period of, you know, it took them four, five years. Marijuana’s taken about the same length of time, but there’s nowhere near the kind of lobbying going on for that.
STEPHEN JANIS: All proposals which didn’t even come up for a vote, and reveal how in a state ruled by Democrats, reform is often slow, if not nonexistent.
DAYVON LOVE: It’s difficult. It’s more difficult than it should be. I mean, like you mentioned last year, we were able to prevail on bail reform, but it took a lot of effort. And for a state that proclaims to be so progressive and so blue, it shouldn’t be this hard.
STEPHEN JANIS: A story of a divide between politics and policy the Real News will continue to follow to hold politicians in Maryland and across the country accountable.
This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting for the Real News in Annapolis, Maryland.