Forum addresses issues of blacks in Montgomery -- Gazette.Net


Supporters of a bill that would change Maryland law to hide convictions for some nonviolent offenses believe it could be a way to help minorities in Montgomery County.

A bill sponsored by Montgomery Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring would allow people convicted of nonviolent offenses such as disorderly conduct, trespassing or misdemeanor theft to ask a court to shield their record from public view three years after they complete their sentence.

The legislation was discussed at a Saturday forum on the “State of Black Montgomery” in Silver Spring. The event was organized by the African-American Democratic Club of Montgomery County and the Montgomery County Young Democrats.

The forum included panels on topics such as increasing business opportunities for blacks, empowering and engaging black youth and increasing political participation among blacks.

The permanency of a criminal record is a major barrier to people transitioning from jail back into society, said Caryn York, a policy associate with the Baltimore-based Job Opportunities Task Force who spoke on one of the panels at the event.

After a certain period of time, a person should be able to have their record removed from public view, York said.

Under Raskin’s bill, which has a hearing scheduled for March 4 in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, someone may ask a judge to shield all court and police records relating to a conviction for a shieldable offense committed before the person was 26 years old.

Raskin said Monday that his bill speaks to a profound value in American society that people should be given an opportunity to get back on their feet after they’ve made a mistake.

It would only apply to nonviolent misdemeanors, he said.

The state and the country have too many people who aren’t able to find their way back into the work force with a nonviolent conviction on their record, he said.

That is tragic for those individuals, but there’s also a danger for society from the creation of a permanent under-class who can’t get back into the legitimate economy, he said.

The bill would not apply to convictions for domestic crimes.

Even if shielded, the information would remain visible to police and other law enforcement as well as employers who are legally or contractually required to conduct criminal background checks for employees.

A conviction would be unable to be shielded if the person applying for it is convicted of a new crime during the waiting period, unless the new conviction also becomes eligible for shielding.

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington said changes to criminal justice policy may be coming from the federal government as well.

There’s a growing consensus among both liberals and conservatives in Congress that the criminal justice system is broken and needs to be reformed, Van Hollen said.

One of the potential areas for reform is getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, he said.

Van Hollen said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other conservatives have expressed an interest in working on the problem.