Maryland May Raise Smoking Age to 21, Limit Vape Marketing

Several bills in the Maryland General Assembly could raise the age to purchase tobacco and vape products from 18 to 21 as well as prohibit certain types of “vape” packaging that target minors.

Usage of electronic nicotine delivery systems—known as vapes—has increased among among high school students nationwide from over 11 percent in 2017 to nearly 21 percent in 2018, according to the United States Surgeon General.

In addition to raising the legal age, House bill 1169—sponsored by Delegate Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George’s—would change the definition of tobacco products to include vapor devices, parts and juices.

Nearly 9 out of 10 cigarette smokers had tried smoking by the age of 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This bill is intended to prevent more minors from trying cigarettes before they are of legal age, Davis said.

“The information about smoking is irrefutable. You can drink responsibly, you can gamble responsibly but you can’t smoke responsibly,” Davis said. “Those are carcinogens and anything else is just hype,” he said.

Another bill would prohibit the sale of vape products that feature cartoons, teen celebrities or the likeness of a person who appears to be younger than 27 on their packaging. Sponsored by Delegate Ned Carey, D-Anne Arundel, House bill 1185 would also require products to be sold in child-safe, tamper-evident packaging.

This bill was proposed by members of the vapor industry as a means of self-regulation, Carey said.

Lawmakers and industry professionals have criticized certain types of vape packaging as marketing targeted at minors. Various vape juices emulate the flavors of candies and breakfast cereals, and their labeling often bears a striking resemblance to their edible counterparts, according to Vapor Technology Association representative Rob Garagiola.

“There should not be Cocoa Puffs or Tony the Tiger-type marketing,” Garagiola said.

This bill would also require retailers to keep all vape products behind the counter and display signs that prohibit minors, as well as increase the maximum fine for the sale of these products to a minor from $1,000 to $2,500 for a second offense within two years of the first, according to Garagiola.

“Vape shops and vape shop owners like myself are in this business to get people off combustible cigarettes,” Maryland Vapor Alliance member Mary Yaeger said. “I don’t want (vapes) in the hands of children, not my grandchildren, not my friends’ children, not my own children,” she said.

Both measures have corresponding legislation in the Maryland Senate. On Thursday, Senate bill 708 was heard by a Senate committee; Senate bill 895 advanced with amendments in the chamber. House bills 1169 and 1185 were heard by a House of Delegates committee Feb. 27.

Bill would Give Some Md. Students Free Eyeglasses and Exams

Students in Maryland public schools who fail required vision screenings and do not receive recommended services would be provided free eye examinations and eyeglasses by a new Maryland Department of Health program, under legislation expected to be heard by a Senate committee on Wednesday.

Senate bill 915 and House bill 1242 would create the Vision for Maryland Program, which would coordinate with Johns Hopkins University, local boards of education and local health departments to carry out the eye exams for students and give glasses to them if necessary.

The Ways and Means committee had a hearing for the House bill on March 7, but it has yet to receive a committee vote.

Local boards of education or local health departments are mandated to screen vision and hearing for all public school students when they enter the school system, in first grade and in eighth or ninth grade under current law. This would remain largely unchanged under the legislation.

Students who have behavioral or learning problems would be given eye exams — regardless of their grade — when documentation of the problem begins, or when the school is notified of a medical change, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

Parents and guardians of students are required to receive results of the screenings, and if a student fails, would be given additional information on how to follow up with an eye exam, under a 2017 state law.

The bill ensures students in the state who otherwise could not see the blackboard have access to success, lead sponsor Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, told Capital News Service last week.

“Where learning is concerned … the ability to read and see is critical,” Delegate Terri Hill, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, also a lead sponsor, told legislators at a committee hearing on March 7.

Before passage of the 2017 legislation, 50 percent of students who failed the screening never got an eye exam, and a significant portion never got the glasses, Hill told legislators.

“Early diagnosis and treatment of children’s vision problems is a necessary component to school readiness and academic learning,” Latisha Corey, president of the Maryland Parent Teacher Association, said in written testimony to a House committee. “Vision screening is not a substitute for a complete eye and vision evaluation by an eye doctor.”

However, the government organization tasked with operating the program opposed the bill, because it would place a “substantial fiscal burden” on the Maryland Department of Health, and would put “logistical burdens” on school systems, according to written testimony from Robert Neall, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health.

“During the 2017-2018 school year, 38,638 students received a referral after vision screening,” Neall wrote. “The cost for the provision of an eye examination and glasses for these students could be approximately $5,449,688 annually.”

An estimated 9,349 students in special education programs and 5,000 students in different learning environments were reported by Anne Arundel County Public Schools, the Maryland Association of County Health Officers said in a written statement on March 7. “Extrapolating this to the population of the state, the annual cost to the local Board and Health Departments is estimated at over $20,000,000.”

But according to a legislative analysis, the bill would cost the Maryland Department of Health an estimated $231,889 to hire employees to coordinate the program.

The same analysis said it would cost local boards of education and local health departments an estimated $900,000 a year to provide eye exams to students who begin a special education program or notify their schools of a change in medical history. This estimate did not include local costs for students who need behavior or learning intervention, who would also be covered under the bill.

Some local boards of education and local health departments opposed the measure, saying it is overreaching and questioning the practicality of its mandates.

The “unfunded mandate,” would require “the hiring of ophthalmologists and a mobile van to travel between schools to provide services required by the bill,” the Montgomery Department of Health and Human Services said in a written statement on March 7.

“While this legislation is well-intentioned, (Anne Arundel County Public Schools) has concerns with the requirement that county boards of education coordinate with the Vision for Maryland Program,” Anne Arundel County schools attorney Jeanette Ortiz said in a written statement on March 7. “Such a responsibility does not fall on a county board of education.”

Maryland House passes Drug-aided Death Bill

The Maryland House on Thursday passed a measure that would give terminally ill patients six months from death the option to end their lives by taking prescribed lethal medication.

House bill 399, or the End-of-Life Option Act, received 74 votes for and 66 against in an impassioned chamber session.

Individuals are required to consent three times to death. “Lethal injection, mercy killing or euthanasia,” would not be legal under the legislation, according to the bill’s analysis. There would be criminal penalties for people who coerce others into ending their lives.
The debate began with some tension, but soon cooled off, as personal anecdotes of experiences with death or near-death brought tears to the eyes of members of the chamber.

Democratic and Republican delegates opposed the bill, saying they had religious and moral objections, and detailing how important each day alive was to many of their relatives who died from terminal illnesses.

“Because I am a believer,” God should be answered to, not nurses or doctors, Delegate Jay Walker, D-Prince George’s, said. “Give my Lord the opportunity of a miracle.”

“Doctors take an oath, the Hippocratic oath, to do no harm,” Delegate Haven Shoemaker, R-Carroll, told Capital News Service.

“We’re encouraging (physicians) to contravene that oath,” Shoemaker said.

“Think about vulnerable populations” who could be taken advantage of by this legislation, said House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel. “Less than 5 percent of the poor receive hospice care at the end of life.”

If many people begin ending their lives prematurely, “we wouldn’t look for a cure,” to their diseases, said Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties.

Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, spoke of her sister who died of a terminal illness.

She would not have made peace with her only son if she had ended her life early, Glenn said. “We don’t know what tomorrow will hold.”

Democratic supporters argued that individuals deserve the right and option to choose when they die.

Delegate Shane Pendergrass, D-Howard, lead sponsor of the legislation, told the stories of two people who fought breast and brain cancer.

Knowing the medication to end your life is there gives comfort and control to an individual who is suffering, Pendergrass said.

Delegate Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, said he had three family members attempt suicide, and spoke of his mother who tried to end her life from the pain of her cancer.

“Despite my personal hatred for suicide, I began to ask myself what right I had as a government official, and even as her son, to dictate to her how her life should end,” Luedtke said.

Individuals can already choose to not be resuscitated and be taken off a feeding tube, Delegate Elizabeth Proctor, D-Charles and Prince George’s, said. The bill just gives people at the end of life another option, Proctor said.

Delegate Sandy Bartlett, D-Anne Arundel, told her story of anguish following mastectomies for breast cancer.

Deciding to end one’s life is up to “her, and her choice only,” Bartlett said, speaking of herself.

The bill “does not impose beliefs on anyone,” said Delegate Terri Hill, D-Baltimore and Howard counties, a physician. “I expect that the positions we’ve taken have been thoughtful and spiritually guided.”

The chamber was silent following the final vote.

Now that the legislation has passed the House, an identical bill must pass the Senate, and then must not be vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan, R, to become law.

“I’m going to give a lot of heartful and thoughtful consideration,” to the act, Hogan said in February.

California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized physician-assisted suicide, and Montana has no law prohibiting it.

Seventy-two percent of Americans would support ending a terminally ill patient’s life, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.

The legislation, originally titled the “Richard E. Israel and Roger ‘Pip” Moyer Death with Dignity Act,” was first presented to the General Assembly in 2015.

Israel and Moyer were former members of Annapolis government, and both died in 2015 from Parkinson’s disease.

Pendergrass said after years of supporting the bill, it is “just a remarkable moment” to see the vote of passage for this legislation.

She attributed the bills’ success to testimony she heard and has repeated many times: “Everyone is one bad death away from supporting this bill.”

By David Jahng

Maryland Leaders Announce School-funding Plans Based on Kirwan Report

Maryland Democratic legislators announced Tuesday “The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” a bill that would provide funding for increased teacher salaries, improved teacher training and free, full-day prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-old children in poverty.

Introduced by House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, this bill — along with an identical counterpart in the Maryland Senate — would allocate $325 million in fiscal year 2020 and $750 million in fiscal year 2021 toward funding the five main policy areas outlined by the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.

The panel — nicknamed the “Kirwan Commission” — has been working since 2016 to come up with recommendations for education improvements across the state, Chair William “Brit” Kirwan said Tuesday.

Kirwan called his experience with the commission the “most important thing I have ever worked on in my life,” citing the shortage of teachers in the state of Maryland as a major contributor to a lack of academic success.

House bill 1413 would establish more opportunities for career growth among educators and provide them with salary increases in order to avoid the “revolving door” of teachers that some schools are suffering from, Kirwan said. The bill will also heighten the rigor of state certification standards for teachers, Kirwan said.

This bill would provide early support and intervention for low-income families, including full-day prekindergarten for children ages 3 and 4, according to Kirwan.

The blueprint will set a “college and career readiness standard,” one that is aimed to ensure that by the time a student completes the 10th grade (if not, by the time of high school graduation), they will have the English and mathematical literacy necessary to succeed in the first year of a community college program, according to Kirwan.

The “blueprint” will also provide pathways to free early college programs that would allow students who have met these standards to earn an associate’s degree while still in high school. The bill will also provide access to career and technical education for those who have met the college and career readiness standards.

The measure would provide additional support and services for English learners, students with disabilities and students from low-income families who have not met their college and career readiness standards.

The bill would also provide an accountability system to ensure that school districts are implementing the improvements identified by the commission, according to Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, R, underlined the importance of making sure the bill’s accountability system is air-tight in a letter he sent to legislative leaders Nov. 27.

“Increased funding and strong accountability are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they must be aligned to ensure that Marylanders are receiving a world class education and good value for the state tax dollars invested,” Hogan said in the letter.

Students and educators, clad in red Strong Schools Maryland T-shirts, came to Annapolis to show their support.

Eleven-year-old City Neighbors Charter School student Mallory Lerch said increased funding and access to teachers would make for a better, more creative classroom environment at her school in Baltimore.

“I think our schools are really underfunded and we deserve more,” Mallory said.

The Maryland State Education Association said they are in support of the bill and the school improvements and teacher salary increases it addresses, according to the president, Cheryl Bost.

Though no hearing date has been set, identical legislation, Senate bill 1030, is scheduled to be heard by a Maryland Senate committee Wednesday.

By Charlie Youngmann

 

Maryland’s Congressional Delegation Voices Support for Kirwan Commission Goals

Maryland’s congressional delegation has voiced strong support for a sweeping plan to reform the state’s educational system.

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education has been investigating how to improve Maryland’s public schools for more than two years.

In a meeting in the House Tuesday with some of the state’s congressional delegation, commission chairman William E. “Brit” Kirwan, former president of the University of Maryland, College Park and former chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the state’s educational system is “mediocre” and more needs to be done to strengthen it.

“We are at a huge crossroads moment for our state,” Kirwan said. “One of the hurdles we have to overcome is the complacency about the quality of our education.”

One problem the commission has identified is insufficient financial support for schools located in low-income areas.

“We just aren’t investing enough money as other states and other countries do in these schools,” Kirwan said.

The commission is recommending expanding access to high-quality preschool for three- and four-year-olds and career and technical education for high schoolers.

Another top concern of the commission is the high turnover rate for teachers in the state. According to Kirwan, 47 percent of second-year teachers do not return for a third year.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, said “elevating the profession of teaching as a high profession with adequate training and compensation” is imperative to improving the quality of education in the state.

The commission is currently requesting $3.8 billion for the necessary improvements. Cardin said this money would be phased in over a ten-year period in a “fiscally responsible manner.”

Kirwan said he expects the Maryland General Assembly to address several of the commission’s findings in the coming weeks. No significant legislation, though, is expected until next year’s legislative session as the commission continues to work through the fall of 2019.

Kirwan said the leaders of the Maryland General Assembly are committed to considering legislation that implements the recommendations of the commission.

The delegation members made it clear that they consider education reform one of their highest priorities at the state and federal level.

“I think implementing the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission (has) to be the top, number one priority of the state,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, said “the greatest threat to our national security is our failure to properly educate every single one of our children.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said in a statement that “we must ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed, from early childhood education through secondary education.”

“It is critically important that we bolster school readiness and college and career readiness as well as address disparities for students of color and students in low-income communities,” Hoyer added. “The delegation is committed to supporting the implementation of Dr. Kirwan’s recommendations and working with local leaders and stakeholders to improve public education in our state.”

By Carolina Velloso

 

Maryland Makes 4th Try at Aid-in-Dying Bill

A bill in the Maryland General Assembly would allow people with a terminal illness six months from the estimated time of their death to end their lives with a lethal dose of prescribed medicine.

Individuals should have the right to choose when they die, supporters said, while opponents of the measure — known variously as “death with dignity,” “physician-assisted suicide” and an “end-of-life option” — said public safety could be put at risk if the legislation passes.

An individual would need to consent three times, twice orally and once in writing. At least two doctors would have to confirm that person is of sound mind, if a physician deems a psychological evaluation necessary, under the bill.

“Lethal injection, mercy killing, or euthanasia,” would not be legalized, and people who falsify requests or coerce others into ending their lives would be penalized with felony charges under the bill.

Lawmakers in a Senate committee heard testimony on Tuesday on Senate bill 311; delegates heard testimony on its twin, House bill 399, on Feb. 15.

Senate bill 311, or the “End of Life Option Act,” was heard in a Senate committee on Tuesday.

California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized physician-assisted suicide, and Montana has no law prohibiting it.

“I’m going to give a lot of heartfelt and thoughtful consideration,” to the act, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said last week.

Seventy-two percent of Americans would support ending a terminally ill patient’s life, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.

The act will “bring about tremendous relief during the most difficult time in a person’s life,” at almost no cost, Kim Callinan, CEO of Compassion and Choices, told lawmakers.

The Department of Legislative Services estimated costs to the state of $173,700 for fiscal year 2020, and around $80,000 per following year.

The legislation would give people a tool to control not if, but rather how they die, said lead sponsor Delegate Shane Pendergrass, D-Howard.

“I believe people have the right,” Pendergrass told Capital News Service. “Why should I stand in their way?”

There are religious arguments for and against the act, but the element of compassion and understanding is not talked about as much, said lead sponsor Sen. William Smith Jr., D-Montgomery.

“If you have a personal reservation for it, then that’s fine,” said Smith. “But we should still go ahead and make sure that that’s available for other folks.”

“He was ready to die,” said Diane Rehm, former radio host of “The Diane Rehm Show” on WAMU and NPR, speaking of her husband who she said died of Parkinson’s disease after refusing to eat, drink and take medication for 10 days due to pain and loss of motor functions.

“Why did laws infringe on an individual’s decision to die peacefully, when dying was inevitable within a few months?” Rehm asked lawmakers.

What is being argued for is the right of an individual who is psychiatrically together to make a personal decision, said Rabbi Emeritus Donald Berlin from the Temple Oheb Shalom congregation in Baltimore.

“The end of life is coming soon, the option is just to not make it linger indefinitely,” said Berlin, who has testified on the legislation in the past.

A significant update from the last version of the bill, in 2017, states “one of the oral requests must be made while the individual is alone with the attending physician.”

However, this year’s legislation has not fixed the concerns that have prevented its passing in previous years, opponents said.

Oregon, the first state to legalize assisted suicide, found being a burden to one’s family is the most common reason for death, not pain, said Kate Alexander, director of communication and engagement for Maryland Catholic Conference.

Of 143 patients who died in 2017 from lethal medication in Oregon, 55.2 percent reported concerns of being a burden on family, friends or caregivers, according to a report from the Oregon Health Authority. The most common concern reported (more than one could be selected), by 88 percent of patients, was “decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable.”

A psychological evaluation is very fluid, and a doctor who does not know a person may only see them for the first time in a fragile state, said Therese Hessler, associate director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

“There is no kind of mental evaluation that could attest for that,” Hessler said.

The bill is bad public health policy, said Annette Hanson, chair of the Maryland Psychiatric Society Legislative Committee.

The law would apply to everyone in the state, including people in the public health system who are not educated, lack social support and do not have financial resources, Hanson said.

There is no requirement that a patient’s decision-making capacity be assessed at the time of taking the lethal medication, instead it is only once when the medicine is initially prescribed, Hanson said.

A patient must ask twice verbally and once in writing to obtain the medicine, but after a prescription is sent to a pharmacist, the bill does not mandate any further contact between physician and individual.
This session’s bill was first introduced in 2015, and was titled the “Richard E. Israel and Roger ‘Pip’ Moyer Death with Dignity Act.”

Israel was a Maryland assistant attorney general and Annapolis alderman, and Moyer was an Annapolis mayor. Both died in 2015 following battles with Parkinson’s disease.

Israel was an outspoken supporter for the bill’s first introduction to the legislature.

“As the body continues to fail to respond to the mind, life loses its meaning, purpose and hope,” Israel said in written testimony to a House committee.

The legislation was an effort to make humanity the master of science in an age when, “modern medicine can keep the heart and lungs working long after the brain has ceased to function,” said Israel.

“I can appreciate the irony that if my advocacy is successful … my voice will be forever stilled,” Israel wrote. “So be it.”

Medical Cannabis is a High Priority in Maryland Legislature

Creating and selling edible medical cannabis products; allowing inmates to receive medical cannabis treatment; and prohibiting employers from asking about marijuana use could become law in Maryland under bills being pushed in this year’s General Assembly.
 
The Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee is expected to hear 18 bills regarding medical cannabis and marijuana use in the state on Tuesday.
 
While medical cannabis is legal at the state level for patients given approval by the Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which develops policies and regulations on the drug and qualifies patients to receive it as treatment, recreational marijuana is not yet legalized.
 
Committee Chair Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, is the lead sponsor on 11 of the 18 bills and told Capital News Service that the objective of pushing so many pieces of legislation is to normalize medical marijuana as medication, as it’s still treated as an illicit drug under federal law. 
 
Over his years serving in the Maryland legislature, Zirkin told Capital News Service, he’s seen medical cannabis help people and wants to take away as many roadblocks to it as he can.
 
Senate bill 857, sponsored by Zirkin, will allow certain dispensaries to acquire, possess and sell food containing medical cannabis to qualifying patients, along with allowing certain processors to distribute and sell to specified dispensaries. 
 
However, the development of edible products containing cannabis is very different from dealing with flower, or the smokable part of the cannabis plant, or processed cannabis products, as all food produced or sold in the state is regulated by the Maryland Office of Food Safety, said Joy Strand, executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.
 
“We’re very excited to be able to bring an edibles program to Maryland, but our top focus on any of the products we’re doing or regulating is that they’re high-quality and safe for patients as a medicinal product,” Strand said in a briefing to lawmakers on Jan. 17.
 
The Senate bill was cross-filed with House bill 17, sponsored by Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore. Glenn, whose mother is the namesake of the commission, is a leading sponsor of medical marijuana legislation. A hearing for that bill was cancelled and has not yet been rescheduled. 
 
Zirkin, with Sen. Michael Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll, is working to advance legislation — Senate bill 97 — that states that a person can’t be denied the right to purchase, possess or carry a firearm solely based on their authorized status as a medical cannabis patient.
 
Current federal laws bar medical cannabis patients from purchasing or possessing firearms under the Federal Gun Control Act, and marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug and is illegal on the federal level.
 
Maryland State Police can ask individuals looking to purchase a gun about their status as medical cannabis patients and can bar patients from completing the transaction, according to the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission website.
 
Zirkin is also sponsoring Senate bill 855, which would allow certain qualified inmates to receive medical cannabis as treatment in state and local correctional facilities.
 
While inmates are eligible for medical care and treatment while incarcerated, medications prescribed to them prior to being placed in detention are not always given to them once locked up.
 
However, Sen. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, is presenting an opposing bill — Senate bill 86 — which would bar possession of marijuana or cannabis on the grounds of a local or state correctional facility, or while a criminal offender is in a home detention program. 
 
Serafini’s bill clarifies current legislation by stating that civil and criminal penalties can be imposed if an individual violates the law and possesses or uses marijuana or cannabis in any correctional setting.
 
Another bill from Zirkin is Senate bill 863, which would prohibit certain employers from requiring employees or applicants to disclose their use of marijuana and cannabis.
 
However, the bill doesn’t prohibit employers from making inquiries or taking other actions otherwise mandated to them by local, state or federal laws, or if applicants or employees were using, possessing or under the influence of marijuana at their place of employment.
 
While medical cannabis is legal for qualified patients and many individuals are aware of its availability, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission is prohibited from publishing ads for medical cannabis or associated products on radio, television or billboards.
 
Senate bill 859, also sponsored by Zirkin, aims to change advertising laws for medical cannabis to be consistent with federal regulations on prescription drug advertising.
 
The bill will prohibit such advertising from being false or misleading and will be required to state that the product being advertised is only for use by qualifying patients.
 
“If this helps them, why would we hide it from them?” Zirkin asked during a legislative briefing on medical cannabis on Jan. 17.
By Natalie Jones

Maryland Lawmakers Push Bill to Simplify Financial Aid for Independent Students

Maryland lawmakers are proposing a bill to simplify the process of applying for federal aid for students who have no contact with their parents.

Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Timonium, and John Sarbanes, D-Towson, introduced the FAFSA Fairness Act of 2019 in the House, while Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin will introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

“We believe this is an important piece in making college more affordable for more students,” Van Hollen told Capital News Service in an interview. “This is a small but important measure to help students who, for all practical purposes, do not have parents who can help them participate in paying for college.”

The bill would apply to students who do not have contact with their parents because they escaped abusive homes, were abandoned or have incarcerated parents.

“Students that have faced difficult and abusive life circumstances that leave them unable to contact their parents should have the same chance as their peers to apply for federal student aid and make informed financial decisions,” Cardin said in a statement..

The current FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) does not allow for students to apply under independent status.

Students with special circumstances must contact each college or university to which they applied and request a ”dependency override” before their aid package is calculated. This process can be arduous and dissuade students from completing their applications, Van Hollen said.

The bill includes a key provision that would allow students to apply under a “provisionally independent” category. They would instantly receive a conditional calculation of their financial aid award and complete the dependency override only with the school at which they are enrolling.

“This bill will help prevent our financial aid process from continuing to be an unintended barrier to higher education,” Cummings said in a statement.

Van Hollen said simplifying the FAFSA application process became important to Maryland lawmakers because of concerns voiced by their constituents.

“We’ve been hearing about the need to do this…from students across the state,” he said.

Cummings, Cardin and Van Hollen first introduced the bill last year as the FAFSA Fairness Act of 2018, but it did not pass the Republican-controlled House. Democrats took control of the House in January.

This time, Van Hollen said he expects the bill to garner bipartisan support.

The FAFSA bill is expected to be part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which Van Hollen says the House will take up this year.

“The most likely route to success would be to include this provision as part of that larger bill,” Van Hollen said.

Several educational organizations have announced support of the bill, including the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the American Council on Education.

Lawmakers Press To Eliminate Job Discrimination Against Former Felons

Former felons could have more success securing employment under bipartisan legislation introduced Thursday that would bar federal employers from asking requests for applicants’ criminal histories before conditional job offers.

Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and Doug Collins, R-Georgia, joined with Sens. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, to propose the Fair Chance Act, an attempt to decrease rates of recidivism by helping ex-convicts secure jobs.

The bill would “ban the box,” directing employers to discontinue applications requiring candidates to check a box indicating their criminal records.

“This bill would give individuals who are reentering society from prison a fair chance at truly achieving the American dream and becoming contributing members of our communities,” said Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

“We have a criminal justice system where the collateral consequences for Americans with a criminal conviction are like getting a life sentence — affecting their ability to vote, to get housing and critically, to get back to work,” Booker, a presidential candidate, said in a statement.

Thirty-three states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted laws or policies that “ban the box,” extending the jurisdiction of such policies to almost three-fourths of the U.S. population, according to the National Employment Law Project.

The Fair Chance Act specifically prohibits the federal government and federal contractors from making inquiries into the criminal histories of ex-offenders before the conditional offer stage.

This follows President Donald Trump’s Tuesday State of the Union address in which he spotlighted criminal justice reform, saying “America is a nation that believes in redemption.”

Trump invited a former inmate to the address who was directly affected by the First Step Act, a bill Trump signed in December that seeks to help nonviolent offenders readjust to society.

“This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community,” Trump said.

Similarly, Cummings’s panel noted that black men with a criminal record “have been 60 percent less likely to receive a callback or job offer than those without records.” That is nearly 10 percentage points higher than the callback rate for male felons in general.

“Getting people back to work improves the safety of our communities, strengthens families, and reduces government dependence – goals that all Americans share,” Johnson said in a statement. “If someone getting out of prison wants to work and be a productive member of society, we should do everything possible to facilitate that. The Fair Chance Act is an important step in that direction.”

By Ambriah Underwood

Legislation Would Update Justice Reinvestment Act

After a comprehensive law overhauled the state’s criminal justice system, Maryland has seen a decline in the state’s prison and jail populations and more streamlined treatment for addicts who are charged with crimes, but advocates want to add to the law to keep inmates from returning behind bars.

Signed into law in 2016, the Justice Reinvestment Act is a thorough criminal justice system reform that focuses on increasing supervision and treatment and decreasing incarceration rates in Maryland prisons.

Described by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, as the “most comprehensive reform” he’s seen while serving in the Senate, the law has significantly reformed many criminal justice policies since becoming fully effective on Oct. 1, 2017. But some of its provisions are up in the legislature again.

The law aims to keep spots in prison beds open for serious, repeat violent offenders while also enforcing mandatory minimum sentences for high-level drug dealers.

It also places caps on maximum sentences for nonviolent offenders who violate probation on a technicality.

About 700 inmates have been screened for administrative release since the legislation went into effect, with 21 percent, or 147 inmates, being found eligible. Of those, 60 percent have been released and the rest are fulfilling their minimum length of stay, according to a report from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

The state’s prison population dropped 1.8 percent in fiscal year 2018, and the local detention population dropped 10.3 percent, according to the report.

The bill also emphasizes treatment over incarceration for individuals struggling with addiction and has sparked a drastic drop in wait times for psychiatric beds.

Between fiscal years 2012 and 2014, placement times averaged around 167 days, dropping to 91 days in fiscal year 2017. With the Justice Reinvestment Act’s new 21-day deadline adding pressure, average placement times dropped to just 10.6 days for the 788 individuals placed in treatment in fiscal year 2018, according to the report from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

For those returning to life outside the correctional system, the law states that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services must issue a certificate of rehabilitation to specified individuals.

Professional licensing boards then can’t deny occupational licenses or certificates to former convicts solely based on the fact that the individual had previously been convicted of a crime.

But for some individuals, return to life outside is complicated by how the state categorizes and links related charges.

Under the Justice Reinvestment Act, expungement is permitted after 10 years of good behavior, including any parole, probation or supervision, for misdemeanor charges.

After 15 years of good behavior, expungement is permitted for second degree assault, felony theft, intent to distribute controlled, dangerous substances and burglary in the first, second and third degrees.

Before the law was enacted, only nuisance crimes such as public urination or other activities not normally done in public were eligible for expungement through the Justice Reinvestment Act.

Under current state law, a charge is not eligible for expungement if one conviction in a group of convictions is not eligible for expungement.

However, House Bill 13, sponsored by Delegate Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, seeks to repeal that provision, and would authorize a person to file a petition for partial expungement of certain criminal records under certain circumstances.

The bill, previously introduced in the 2017 General Assembly, has been a topic in the legislature since 2012, and is scheduled to be heard in the Senate on Thursday.

Alphonso Smith of Baltimore wrote to lawmakers this year that he has been working at the Maryland Transit Administration as an operations instructor for 20 years. He submitted written testimony that he is an ex-offender, and described the 34 years following his conviction, which he did not detail, as “somewhat successful.”

“There are many limitations and road blocks in place due to prior, non-expungeable convictions preventing any further advancement in law enforcement, child care and many other career paths,” he said Jan. 22 in a written testimony supporting the bill. He added that the bill’s passage would clear a path for himself and others to begin the expungement process and to advance in his career without convictions weighing them down.

Along similar lines, House bill 19, sponsored by Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, seeks to authorize individuals to file a petition for expungement if the person was convicted of a nonviolent crime.

For former convicts entering the workforce again, employers also don’t often understand the difference between conviction and non-conviction dispositions, said Delegate Darryl Barnes, D-Prince George’s, the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland.

Non-conviction dispositions are standard police records listing an individual’s involvement with courts or law enforcement, and conviction dispositions are criminal records with formal penalties.

Even if a charge receives a non-criminal disposition, under the Justice Reinvestment Act, if it’s in the same unit of charges as a criminal one, it can’t be expunged.

“Even when they understand these differences, employers often draw negative impressions about job applicants who have been involved with the criminal justice system, regardless of case outcome,” Barnes stated in his written testimony supporting House bill 13.

Another factor to consider is race, Barnes said. Black residents make up 28 percent of the state population, yet they comprise over 70 percent of the incarcerated population.

With higher conviction rates for persons of color, these individuals face exclusion from the job market, challenges finding stable housing, and other cyclical problems affecting communities of color, according to written testimony from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Ex-offenders who are employed are much less likely to commit new offenses than those who are unemployed, according to a 2017 Greater Baltimore Committee report that described employment as the “single largest determinant of rearrest and reconviction.”

The expungement legislation faces opposition from the Maryland Judicial Conference, Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association.

Law enforcement officials generally oppose legislation that increases categories for expungement because it could interfere with access to prior criminal information and be a safety factor for law enforcement personnel, according to written testimony from co-chairs Chief David Morris of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and Sheriff Darren Popkin of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association.

Technological roadblocks are also a reason for opposition, according to representatives of the Maryland court system.

Online access to case records in Maryland are available through the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website, which currently has no functionality to remove single records at the charge level from the website, according to written testimony from the Maryland Judicial Conference.

Each charge is also assigned an individual number for each case. If a partial expungement is granted for one charge of a two-charge case, the system can’t renumber the charges to appear as if only one charge exists, according to written testimony from a Maryland court system representative.

“A missing numbered charge could raise more questions and red flags, therefore, nullifying the purpose of the expungement,” the Legislative Committee of the Maryland Judicial Council, the main policy advisory body to the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, said in written testimony opposing the bill.

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