ACLU and the Maryland Legislature
A Civil Liberties Guide to the 2017 Legislative Session
The ACLU of Maryland is a non-partisan organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties and civil rights. We advance civil liberties and civil rights through litigation, lobbying, and education. In the legislature, we advocate for broad range of civil liberties-including access to justice, criminal justice reform, election fairness and voting rights, freedom of expression, government transparency, police accountability, prisoners' rights, immigrants' rights, equal protection, privacy, racial justice, due process, religious liberty, and LGBT and reproductive rights. The items below represent the issues we expect to be the most time and resource demanding during the 2017 legislative session.
Transparency in Policing-Reforming Maryland's Public Information Act
The Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) must be amended to allow Marylanders to learn how their complaints of police misconduct are handled. Currently, under the MPIA, complainants of police misconduct are only entitled to learn the disposition of their complaint and the discipline imposed. They have no right to know what depth of investigation was conducted and what information was considered in that investigation. Moreover, community members, members of the press, and advocacy groups are not entitled to any information about the way these complaints are handled. The Department of Justice investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department revealed troubling patterns of abuse. Police abuse is not unique to Baltimore City and it is impractical to expect the Justice Department to investigate every jurisdiction throughout the state. Unless the MPIA is reformed, Marylanders will continue to be denied the basic transparency that would allow them to hold their local departments accountable, without having to rely on the DOJ.
Community Control in Policing
In 2016, the Maryland General Assembly made some reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. While these reforms were groundbreaking, they are inadequate to allow for meaningful community oversight of police. At least two urgent reforms are needed in 2017. First, the decision about who sits on trial boards, which determine internal discipline of officers facing accusations of abuse, should not be vulnerable to manipulation by law enforcement unions during collective bargaining. Without that change, communities will not be able to realize the promise of last year's reform allowing local jurisdictions to authorize voting civilians on trial boards, because such attempts will be blocked by police unions. Second, current law provides that only sworn law enforcement officers may investigate a complaint that can lead to discipline. As a result, civilian review boards have no independent disciplinary power, and can only comment on investigations undertaken by police. To make truly independent investigations and decisions about discipline possible in cases of police misconduct, this provision needs to be removed.
Public Funding of Private & Religious Schools
In 2016, the General Assembly made a $5 million appropriation in the budget to fund a voucher program for students to attend private schools. This is $5 million that could support our public school system. More than 97% all of the schools receiving the funding are religious schools. In addition, 73% of the scholarships are going to students who were already enrolled in private schools. In 2017, we will continue to oppose the use of taxpayer dollars to fund private schools that can and do discriminate against already vulnerable groups.
Two-thirds of those in Maryland's jails are held pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted of any crime. Worse, many of them are held because they could not afford bond. It is unacceptable for Marylanders who have not been convicted and who pose no public safety threat to be jailed or risk their family's financial ruin to get them released on bond.
Restoring Parole for Lifers
Even though they were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, in practice more than 2,000 individuals serving life sentences in Maryland are condemned to die in prison. Unlike nearly every other state, Maryland requires the Governor to personally approve parole for any lifer. As a result, no lifer has been paroled for two decades, regardless of individual merit. Maryland's broken parole system disproportionately affects Black Marylanders, as Maryland has the highest rate of Black lifers in the country (77% of all lifers are Black), tied with states like Alabama and Mississippi. Maryland needs to remove the Governor from the parole process, not only to help address the enormous human cost, but also to achieve significant fiscal savings. Each year, Maryland spends nearly $75 million just on incarcerating lifers.
We will be working with our partners to disentangle Maryland from the broken and misguided federal immigration enforcement system and protect the constitutional rights of Maryland's immigrant communities.
Access to Body Camera Footage
With the fast proliferation of body-worn cameras by law enforcement, the public's right to access the footage from these cameras must be protected. Unless the public can see the footage, body cameras cannot serve the purposes of transparency and accountability. Current laws have appropriate safeguards to protect sensitive images and information from being disclosed. There is no reasonable basis to change these laws, especially when body camera footage is often the public's only way of learning the truth about police abuse. For these reasons, the ACLU will oppose any efforts to curb meaningful access to footage.
Full and Adequate Funding of Public Education
The ACLU of Maryland's Education Reform Project will fight to protect education funding and strengthen the education funding formula. In General Assembly 2017, we will work to ensure full funding of the current education funding formula including the formula's inflation factor. Flat funding of the formula over the past 9 years has resulted in a $1.6 billion statewide annual adequacy gap-the amount by which the current formula is underfunded. Inflation increases, though small annually, play an important role in helping school systems meet rising costs without cutting resources to the classroom. The ACLU will oppose any efforts to decrease education funding. Expert consultants have recommended to the "Kirwan" Commission that Maryland schools need an additional $2.9 billion to meet Maryland's constitutional mandate to prepare students to succeed in college and careers. We will work closely with legislators, and the Commission, to improve the education formula over the next two years.
Public School Construction and Building Repairs
School districts across the state have $13-15 billion in unmet school construction needs. In Baltimore, the ACLU launched the Transform Baltimore: Build Schools, Build Neighborhoods campaign with our partners and won a commitment to begin rebuilding Baltimore City's deteriorating school buildings, the oldest in the state. While the $1 billion program is estimated to reconstruct 23-28 school buildings, there are more than 100 school buildings in serious disrepair that will not be covered by this program. The ACLU will work to: support $500 m. in state capital funding for school construction, allocate a fair share of state capital funding for City Schools to keep school buildings that are not funded by the 21st Century Schools Program minimally safe and functional, protect funding for the statewide Aging Schools Program, and support additional funding for air-conditioning projects.
Fair Treatment of All Students
All students deserve to learn in schools that are safe and administer discipline policies fairly. Suspending students fails to address inappropriate behavior and is disproportionately given to minority students and students with disabilities, even when punishing for the same offense. Unfortunately, today, ineffective discipline practices negatively impact thousands of students across the state causing them to lose critical instruction time, fall behind, and have a greater likelihood of dropping out. The ACLU will advocate to expand school supports and promote alternatives to ineffective out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, prohibit suspensions and expulsions of young children, and support Restorative Practices and a review of current discipline and student arrest practices across the state.
OTHER IMPORTANT CIVIL LIBERTIES ISSUES
In addition to the above-mentioned issues, we expect to continue our work on the following:
Access to justice Criminal justice reform * Debtors' prisons * Drug policy reform * Fair housing practices * Freedom of expression * Prisoners' rights * Privacy * Re-entry * Reproductive rights * Government transparency * Voting rights & election fairness * Workers' rights * Youth justice reform