On the 2021 state legislative session: A letter to our Maryland D18 & D20 representatives

Takoma Park Mobilization’s Equal Justice Committee actively backed justice- and immigration-reform legislation in the 2021 Maryland General Assembly session. To sum up, we sent a letter to our District 18 and District 20 representatives, as follows —

Dear Senators Smith and Waldstreicher, and Delegates Carr, Charkoudian, Moon, Shetty, Solomon, and Wilkins:

Takoma Park Mobilization represents over 2,600 community members, who live predominantly in Districts 18 and 20. One of our core values is to recognize and act on the fundamental humanity of our neighbors and community members. Thus, we participated via testimony and grassroots mobilization in certain legislative efforts this session, and we wanted to take this opportunity to recognize some of the successes and shortcomings of these efforts and to address a small number of them in more detail.

We were glad to see Anton’s Law pass in the strong form supported by the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability. We were also relieved to finally see the repeal of LEOBR. However, we were disappointed in the General Assembly’s decision to retain a trial board and wish the replacement legislation had gone further to allow for real civilian oversight. We were also disappointed in Senator Waldstreicher and Smith’s repeated attempts, most of which were rejected, to water down the replacement language. We watched the JPR voting sessions with surprise and at times anger as each senator repeatedly voted with the Republicans in favor of amendments suggested by the FOP and the Sheriffs’ and Chiefs of Police Associations.

We recognize the collaborative effort that resulted in a use of force standard that is higher than the weak constitutional floor. Whether it has an impact depends on how police agencies and courts interpret some of the language that remains vague. Therefore, we hope you will work alongside advocates to monitor its implementation and propose further legislative fixes in the future, if needed. Work remains to dismantle the racist systems that use violence and coercion in the name of public safety, and to make our communities truly safe for everyone.

We recognize that the legislature worked to end certain aspects of Maryland’s complicity with ICE’s cruel and racist detention system by passing Dignity Not Detention, including the additional prohibitions on law enforcement cooperation with ICE. This will spare countless Maryland residents future suffering and is a landmark bill with national and local spillover impact as well (e.g., Howard County’s ending its ICE detention agreement). The Driver Privacy Act is another achievement for immigrant justice. It ensures that the promise we made when we granted our undocumented neighbors the ability to be licensed drivers can finally be fulfilled.

On the other hand, Maryland remains complicit with the overall cruelty and racism of ICE. In particular, we are frustrated that 287(g) agreements remain intact in Maryland and that local corrections facilities can still use a civil ICE detainer to hold people whom our criminal justice system has released. We remain committed to the passage of the full Trust Act and to defusing the “criminal alien” narrative. We hope you will work with us on this effort. Built on the dehumanization of those who’ve been involved with the criminal legal system, this narrative permits the worst excesses of our racist criminal legal system to infect our civil immigration system, separating and harming families for no reason other than xenophobia and bigotry. Last but certainly not least, we look forward to working with you next session to realize the right to counsel in immigration proceedings–an essential next step in increasing access to justice for all immigrants in Maryland.

In the area of juvenile justice reform, we recognize Maryland’s archaic and cruel practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole was removed. Unfortunately, the archaic legacy of sentencing juveniles to life in prison remains. Your leadership in the future to undo these archaic aspects of Maryland’s racist criminal legal system will be crucial. Other significant protections for Maryland’s children in the criminal legal system also did not pass this session, such as ensuring that children have counsel before interrogation. We expect that these reforms will be at the top of your list next session as there is still so much work to be done to remedy the harsh treatment of children, particularly Black and brown children, in our criminal legal system.

The Behavioral Health Crisis Response Services legislation was a victory for the movement to transfer mental health crisis response away from law enforcement and into the hands of mental health professionals. We’ve been pressing for the establishment of a mental health crisis unit in Takoma Park, and for a modification and then expansion of Montgomery County’s program; we hope you will support these efforts locally, and will continue to legislate statewide to ensure that all communities have the funding needed to make non-police mental health crisis response a mainstay of public well-being.

In terms of justice and security for Maryland’s many vulnerable renters, the session was not an overall success. We recognize the creation of greater access to counsel for renters, but know this is a first step on a longer road to a right to counsel. As important is the continuing and pressing need to provide economic security for our renters, so many of whom live in your districts, who have been harmed by the pandemic and will continue to live precariously in its aftermath, particularly with the recent federal court decision to strike down the federal moratorium on evictions.

Overall, we expected more from the leadership of Senator Smith in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. We have met in person over several years to discuss many of these issues. The specific steps the senator took to water down bills were bewildering. Since the 1960s, civil rights leaders have pressed for civilian oversight of police. Maryland still does not have it. This is unjustifiable. We were also shocked that the senator provided such an expansive stage for racist and xenophobic rhetoric during the hearings on the immigration bills. We hope that future committee proceedings can allow for members to be heard without permitting such harmful narratives to dominate the conversation.

In closing, we look forward to pressing for the continued unraveling of decades of injustices that is long overdue and should not be incremental, and we look forward to partnering with you in that fight.

Equal Justice Committee
Takoma Park Mobilization