Commission to decriminalize Md. seeks ‘serious transformation’ of justice system

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After completing their first six months of work, advocates from the People’s Commission to Decriminalize Maryland on Wednesday announced their intention to combat state and local laws that target marginalized populations. Their eyes are locked on generating policy that’s inclusive for every stakeholder in the criminal justice system.

“Everyone who is a member of the commission is someone who has had direct lived experience with the issues that we’re tackling, or they are family members of folks, or they are advocates who have dedicated their lives and their careers to lifting up civil rights and human rights,” said Tara Huffman, the director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program at Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which is spearheading the campaign.

Established in 2019 in an attempt to reduce the disparate rate of targeted policing on youth and adults because of their gender, race and socioeconomic status, the commission plans to make recommendations in an interim report ahead of the 2021 General Assembly session. They’ll identify laws they believe need to be reformed or eliminated surrounding five policy areas: drugs, homelessness, poverty, sex work and juvenile justice.

Huffman said the commission was created to give voice to advocates, community leaders and those directly impacted by policy, using two state-run initiatives — the Task Force to Study Crime Classification and Penalties and the Juvenile Justice Reform Council — as examples of government efforts that limit advocates’ input. One doesn’t incorporate these stakeholders at all; the other leaves them with no tangible ability to reform laws.

“We know that there have been lots of state task force[s] and commission[s], and those of us who do work in Annapolis know that commissions and task forces and study groups are places where good legislation goes to die,” she said. “I and others felt it necessary to finish the work and expand the work of these two bodies and do so in a way that, instead of relying on state actors with the support of community leaders, to sort of say which direction our justice system needs to move to flip that and to say, ‘No, it’s the people.’”

Huffman noted that no state officials are on the OSI-led committee.

Activists, community leaders and those directly impacted by existing policy are combing through the state’s criminal and juvenile justice codes to identify what laws disproportionately impact marginalized people. The intent is to bring equity to Maryland’s justice system through fewer police interactions and an increase in alternative intervention strategies, with a focus on public health.

Huffman said that the discussion about decriminalization surrounds the targeting of vulnerable populations — like the homeless, Black and Brown teens and LGBTQ+ individuals — by the criminal justice system for behaviors that go unnoticed in other populations. One example the advocates cited is a Baltimore City police ordinance that criminalizes loitering with the intent of prostitution, which Gassoh Goba of the Sex Workers Outreach Project and leader of the commission’s sex work workgroup pointed out could mean anything from “being poor, taking the bus, walking while Trans [or] walking while Black.”

“What is increasingly clear — and increasingly clear to even the quote-unquote, ‘everyday American’ — is that there are people who are being targeted by the police, who are being approached by the police, who are encountering the police on a daily basis, behind behaviors and conduct and simple presence that has nothing to do with public safety,” Huffman said.

The commission is also charged with coming up with recommendations for who should respond to moments of crisis if not the police.

Tricia Christensen of the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition said that this work fits into the conversation about policing taking place across the country right now.

Christensen leads the commission’s drug policy workgroup.

“When you think about the war on drugs, it’s always been a war on people — especially people of color and low-income people,” she said Wednesday. “And now more than ever, we believe that in Maryland we have to divest away from a carceral approach to drug use and invest more in harm reduction and other forms of community mutual aid so we can focus on building systems of care that are nonjudgmental, and that are person-centered.”

Huffman said she wants the commission to provide an opportunity to “re-educate” the public about why the police are called and what actions can be taken rather than dialing 911.

“I’m hoping that we can have a serious transformation in what we’re asking any part of the justice system to intervene in and that that would include a reeducation and a conversation amongst us civilians, as everyday citizens, about what we want the police, courts and corrections to be involved in and what isn’t appropriate for them to be involved in,” she said.

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