New Maryland law lets some prisoners seek reduced sentences for drug crimes

With the end of mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug dealers in Maryland on Sunday, hundreds of prisoners may now ask judges to shorten their terms.

Nearly 500 people incarcerated around the state may seek sentence reductions under the Justice Reinvestment Act, a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms approved by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly last year and signed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Now public defenders are preparing to file motions on behalf of inmates as early as Monday. Prosecutors are reviewing cases, and identifying those in which they might want to object to early release.

The busiest jurisdiction for motions is likely to be Baltimore County, responsible for more than a third of the prisoners at issue.

“We believe drug dealers are very dangerous and we always pursue a mandatory minimum,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said. “I believe that with many, many drug dealers, violence comes with it.”

But the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences reflects growing bipartisan concern that they pressure defendants into taking plea deals, take discretion away from judges, and have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

Eighty-one percent of those sentenced in Maryland to a mandatory minimum between 2013 and 2014 were black, according to a report of the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a state panel that studied options for criminal justice reform.

“The concept that the system can jail its way out of a drug scourge has been shown to be a massive failure,” Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe said.

DeWolfe, whose office is expected to handle the vast majority of the motions, added that many people pleaded guilty to crimes “for fear that [they would] end up with a mandatory sentence” if they went to trial.

Before Sunday, repeat offenders of drug dealing crimes were subject to mandatory sentences with…

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