Legislature Passes Bill to Expand Post-Conviction Relief

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Many bills remained in the balance as the minute hand ticked toward midnight on April 9, the last of Maryland’s 90-day legislative session.

Among them was legislation addressing the rights of criminals to petition for post-conviction relief — a process of challenging a conviction in court.

Until two years ago in Maryland, filing a petition for a writ of actual innocence or petitioning to test newly discovered DNA evidence were two ways a defendant could seek post-conviction relief — and potentially win their freedom.

Criminal defendants could have filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence if new evidence was uncovered that called into question that person’s conviction.

But in two Maryland Court of Appeals decisions — Yonga v. State (2015) and Jamison v. State (2016) — the court determined that individuals who accepted pleas were no longer eligible to petition for a writ of actual innocence or the testing of newly discovered DNA evidence.

More than 95 percent of defendants in criminal cases nationwide accept plea bargains, according to the Innocence Project, a legal group working to free innocent people who are incarcerated.

Proponents of Senate bill 423, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, argued — and opponents conceded — that innocent people sometimes plead guilty to crimes they do not commit.

“The bottom line is, if you’re innocent, you should not be in prison,” Zirkin told Capital News Service. “There are times when individuals plea to things that they may not have done because it’s the better idea in terms of … if you’re looking at a ton of time and there’s a plea for less.”

Baltimore resident Demetrius Smith, 34, served time in prison for a crime he did not commit.

In 2008, then 26-year-old Smith was charged with the murder of Robert Long in Baltimore.

A judge granted him bail despite the seriousness of the offense, “because he knew something wasn’t right,” Smith told lawmakers in February.

Smith — while out on bail — was charged in a different case for shooting his neighbor, who survived.

In 2010, a jury convicted Smith of murdering Long. He was sentenced to life in prison.

A year later, at the trial for his neighbor’s shooting, prosecutors offered Smith a plea bargain.

“My sister begged me to take the (plea) deal,” he said.

Smith accepted an Alford plea — an agreement in which the defendant maintains their innocence, but recognizes that the prosecutor has enough evidence to convict them.

“I had lost all faith that I would ever get justice in the courts the day I entered the Alford plea,” Smith told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

He was sentenced to 10 years of incarceration to run concurrently with the life sentence he was already serving for Long’s murder.

He maintained his innocence in both cases throughout.

Smith’s powerful testimony shook the committee.

However, Senate bill 423, which would extend post-conviction relief rights to individuals who accepted plea bargains, did not go unopposed.

Representatives from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office sought changes in the legislation; the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center and two state’s attorneys testified against the bill.

As originally drafted, opponents argued, the bill would open the floodgates for criminals to appeal their convictions, effectively disrupting the criminal justice system.

But, “a blanket dismissal of petitions for post-conviction (relief) undermines justice and is a threat to public safety,” Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, wrote in support of the legislation.

Innocence Project testimony highlighted the public-safety aspect of the bill.

“For every innocent person who is wrongfully convicted, the person who committed the crime remains free,” Amshula Jayaram, an Innocence Project policy advocate, told lawmakers.

The actual person responsible for the crime was identified in 84 percent of the Innocence Project’s cases where an innocent person was wrongfully convicted, Jayaram added.

Opponents were not convinced. Those representing crime victims’ interests pointed to the additional pain that victims may experience if the case returned to court.

“(Crime victims) have an interest in avoiding unnecessary confrontations with those who perpetrated crimes against them and their loved ones,” Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, submitted in written testimony. “Finality of convictions is a bedrock principle of the judicial system.”

Jayaram and Michele Nethercott, director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic and one of Smith’s attorneys, argued that this bill would simply allow defendants to petition the court for their case to be retried.

A federal investigation in 2012 determined that Smith had not murdered Robert Long. Smith and his legal team were able to secure his freedom, and the murder conviction was eventually expunged from his record.

The conviction for shooting his neighbor, which was eventually vacated, remained on Smith’s criminal record for years.

And the two Maryland appeals court decisions meant that Smith’s Alford plea barred him from presenting new evidence — a witness was prepared to recant, Nethercott said — as part of a writ of actual innocence.

The wrongful convictions for years “stopped me from getting jobs, houses, a lot of stuff,” Smith said. “It’s just getting a little better now. Just now.”

With amendments, Senate bill 423 establishes that people who were convicted by way of guilty plea, Alford plea or a plea of nolo contendere — no contest — may petition for a writ of actual innocence and for the testing of newly discovered DNA evidence.

Under the bill, the court will grant a writ or the test by determining whether “a reasonable probability exists that the DNA testing has the scientific potential to produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence relevant to a claim of wrongful conviction or sentencing.”

The court may either “grant a new trial or vacate the conviction if the court determines that the DNA test results establish by clear and convincing evidence the petitioner’s innocence,” the bill says.

Zirkin negotiated with proponents and opponents to find compromising amendments.

One such amendment states that if the court orders a new trial, both the prosecution and defense can bring in any evidence in the possession of law enforcement at the time of the original trial, regardless of whether it was included in the statement of facts accompanying the original plea bargain.

Zirkin’s amended bill also contains a provision that allows either party to appeal the court’s post-conviction ruling. Under existing statute, the state has not been eligible to appeal the court’s decision.

The amended bill passed 134-1 in the House before returning to the Senate, where it came up about 20 minutes before Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, D-Prince George’s, Calvert and Charles, struck the gavel for the last time in 2018.

The Senate voted unanimously to pass the bill.

Smith told lawmakers he didn’t want “what happened to me to happen to the next young man that’s 19 or 20, that’s going to sit in jail for six or seven years for something that he didn’t do.”

The bill awaits Gov. Larry Hogan consideration.

“The legislature passed a record number of bills this session,” Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill wrote in an email to Capital News Service. “The legislature has 20 days to present passed legislation and the governor has 30 days from that point to make his decision.”

“The governor will closely review this legislation,” Churchill added.

Barring the Republican governor’s veto, the law’s success would be determined by how Maryland courts apply it.

“We’ll have to see how this plays out in the real world,” Nethercott said, “in terms of how it actually works out in the courts.”

By Alex Mann

No More Cash: Maryland Tolls Changing to Electronic Only

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The Maryland Transportation Authority has started working to phase out all cash toll booths across the state within in the next 13 years.

Today, tolls are collected three ways: by cash, or electronically, by either an E-ZPass transponder or by video tolling — when the state uses a license-plate photo and mails drivers their bill.

Transportation officials say that the transition to all-electronic, high-speed toll collection will: save drivers time on their commute, save the state money, reduce accidents at toll plazas, and reduce CO2 emissions as less fuel is being burned, according to a national study by the University of Central Florida.

Drivers in Maryland could start seeing new plazas that only collect tolls electronically at highway speeds by the summer of 2019, said Kevin Reigrut, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority.

The transition will also mean that anyone driving on Maryland toll roads will soon need an E-ZPass to avoid paying higher fees, and 218 toll operator positions will be phased out across the state.

If you pay using video tolling, Reigrut said, you pay 1.5 times the base rate for that road — and if drivers don’t have an E-ZPass by the time Maryland’s electronic tolls are phased in, that’s the price they’d pay across the state.

This means that drivers from other states who use Maryland roads will be forced to pay more if they don’t have an E-ZPass by the time of the transition.

As part of the transition, which has been a strategic goal of the transportation authority since 2004, the state has eliminated the monthly fee and offered toll discounts to pass holders to prompt more Marylanders to buy an E-ZPass, Gov. Larry Hogan said at a Board of Public Works meeting Feb. 21.

Drivers who use E-ZPass save 25 percent at tolls on all but two roads across the state and 37.5 percent on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, compared to paying cash, said Reigrut.

The two exceptions are the Intercounty Connector and the I-95 Express Toll Lanes, which already reflect the cost savings, and already collect tolls electronically at highway speeds, via video tolling or E-ZPass.

The state has already seen the advantages of all-electronic tolling facilities at the Intercounty Connector — the second-most used toll facility and the quickest route for commuters who are traveling east-west across the state. This is because drivers can travel through tolls on this road at highway speeds.

The discount was funded by a $270 million toll relief incentive over 5 years by the Hogan administration in July 2015 — the first time tolls have been cut across the state in 50 years — according to a May 7, 2015, press release.

“There is no better time to be a Maryland E-Zpass customer than right now,” Reigrut told Capital News Service.

The budget is still under development for the entire All Electronic Toll project, Reigrut said, but the initial contracts were approved by Maryland’s Board of Public Works on Feb. 21.

The two, 13-year option contracts totaled more than $360 million — $89 million to Kapsch USA Inc. for tolling systems and services and $273 million to Transcore LP for customer service center services.

A toll increase isn’t likely when the all-electronic tolls are entirely phased in, Reigrut said.

In the long term, Reigrut said, there will be cost savings as a result of this project because there won’t be a need to pay for toll collector salaries and benefits, armored cars to transport money to secured rooms at the transportation building or for significant auditing functions relative to using cash.

The transition would phase out 218 toll collector positions over the 13-year contract, and the transportation authority is no longer hiring for the positions, Reigrut said. They will be using temporary employees to fill vacant positions to minimize the number of employees affected by the project.

As toll facilities are converted, collectors will be given the opportunity to serve at nearby toll plazas, and can apply for other jobs within the state, Reigrut said.

The transportation authority’s approach to the project is to address one to two facilities at a time, starting with toll plazas that have the highest number of people who already use E-ZPass.

The first two areas that will be prioritized are the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge in Cecil County — where 93 percent of those who cross use E-ZPass — and the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge on I-695 in Baltimore County — where 78.5 percent of those who cross use E-ZPass, according to Reigrut.

There will “never” be an issue where lanes will be closed during the all-electronic transition, and any work that requires traffic changes will occur in off-peak hours, said Reigrut.

The all-electronic toll conversion at the Key bridge will not be completed by the start of the I-895 project, and therefore won’t offer traffic relief at the onset.

I-895 has two safe, but “structurally deficient” bridges, according to Reigrut, that need to be rebuilt. The first stage of the project included reconfiguring the lanes leading up the bridges and began in March.

The second phase of the project will begin around Thanksgiving of 2018 and will direct north- and southbound traffic across one of the bridges, knocking down and rebuilding the other, and then channeling the two-way traffic across the new bridge while the second is completed, according to a Dec. 21, 2017, press release by the transportation authority.

The entire I-895 project is scheduled to be completed by 2021.

In anticipation of the I-895 project, the transportation department announced a $49.4 million project in March 2017 to reconfigure 4 miles of I-95 roadway, north of the Fort McHenry Tunnel, by the summer of 2018, according to a March 31, 2017, press release by Maryland’s Department of Transportation.

According to Reigrut, facilities undergoing change will start with the installation and coverage of signs to signal the cashless transition.

Then, at existing toll plazas, booths will be converted for non-cash operations to encourage drivers to keep moving without stopping, and overhead tolling equipment will be built and activated.

Finally, the old equipment will be turned off and the booths themselves will be gutted, one to two booths at a time, and the roadways will be reconfigured.

For example, 10 toll lanes that merge to two lanes on a bridge will see new speed limit signs, new road striping, and construction to narrow the road to a consistent two-lane approach to the bridge.

Though drivers can start to see non-cash toll at some plazas within the next year, the Customer Service Center system cannot transition into the new system until all the toll lanes across the state have been transitioned, according to state documents.

Customers will start seeing these changes two years into the project start, Reigrut said.

Customer service improvements will include a mobile app for payments, notifications and account management, a Web chat service, a modernized website and a content management system, according to state documents.

Customers will also have the ability to transfer video tolls to a prepaid account and receive faster notification. A “robust” system will also be implemented for toll users who have credit issues or have missed paying their mailed video toll charge, Reigrut told Capital News Service.

Today, E-ZPass has slightly more than 1 million customers in the state, which has a population of about 6 million people. In 2017, 78 percent of toll transactions — including out-of-state drivers — were recorded using EZ-Pass, Reigrut said.

The transportation authority expects to engage in nine to 12 months of “aggressive public outreach” to notify Maryland drivers of facilities they will be converting, said Reigrut. This outreach would include attending city council meetings in person, posting information online, direct marketing and paying for radio and billboard advertisements.

John Townsend, AAA’s public affairs manager in the District, said he worries about the people who don’t have E-ZPass and agrees that there needs to be an aggressive marketing campaign to create awareness for the transition.

Out-of-state drivers, who are not from E-ZPass states, often use the Bay Bridge; and the Baltimore tunnels will be most vulnerable to this change, because outreach is only happening in-state, Townsend said.

When Virginia began converting Route 66 inside of the Capital Beltway to electronic lanes, the Virginia Department of Transportation engaged in marketing and also increased the number of vendors selling E-ZPass transponders, said Townsend.

In Maryland, the transportation department is using a similar strategy — selling E-ZPasses at the cash toll booths, in some supermarkets, and on their website when drivers register their vehicle.

“You’d have to work hard not to get this information,” Reigrut said.

Today, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia use E-ZPass.

By Katherine Brzozowski

In-state Tuition Bill aimed at ‘Dreamers’ advances in Maryland

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A bill that aims to ensure young, undocumented Maryland students referred to as “Dreamers,” can pursue higher education by giving qualified individuals access to in-state tuition is advancing in the Maryland General Assembly.

The circumstances under which Dreamers and residents with temporary protective status are exempt from paying the out-of-state tuition rate at public institutions of higher education will be altered under House bill 1536, which is cross-filed as Senate bill 546.

Under the legislation, qualified students would soon be able to pay the in-state tuition rate at any Maryland public higher education institution or the in-county rate at any community college, regardless of whether they live in that county.

The current state Dream Act, passed in 2012, says that an individual who attended a Maryland high school for at least three years and graduated or received the equivalent of a high school diploma pays the same tuition rates that resident students pay.

Current law also states that students are required to begin at a Maryland community college in the same district as the high school they graduated from. Once the student completes 60 credits, they may enroll at a public four-year institution and pay in-state tuition.

The new bill removes the credit requirement and would allow students to directly enter any public state college or university, and extends the period of eligibility from four to six years after graduating from high school. It would go into effect on July 1.

“Countless students who qualify (for in-state tuition) are more than ready to begin higher education at a four-year university right away. This bill will allow these Dreamers to continue their academic career at the college of their choice,” said sponsor Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, in a statement to Capital News Service.

High school senior and advocate for CASA, an immigrants-rights advocacy group, Jesus Vicuña, 18, one of the 9,700 Dreamers under protective status in the state, worries that his time will run out before he is able to pursue his dream of running track at Coppin State University, which just sent him an acceptance letter.

“I started to feel a sense of stability, I no longer had to live in the shadows. … For the first time I started to picture myself at a university and I finally had the opportunity to make my parents’ sacrifices worth it,” said Vicuña, who lives in Baltimore and attends Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a public high school, about receiving DACA at the age of 15 after immigrating from Mexico with his family at 9 months old.

His DACA waiver runs out in April 2019, he said.

Vicuña got involved in CASA and his high school’s Hispanic club to promote legislation that helps students like him and testified in front of the Maryland House Ways and Means committee in favor of House bill 1536.

“This is a big step towards progress because everything is so unsure at the federal level,” he said.

The Trump administration announced Sep. 5 it was phasing out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and gave Congress six months to figure out a solution. It was further delayed by rulings from federal judges in California and New York, who both ordered the Trump administration to resume processing DACA renewal applications.

While the deadline has passed without a fix from Congress, the case is still going through the federal appeals process, leaving DACA recipients in limbo.

A recent Supreme Court ruling has given DACA participants a reprieve.

The University System of Maryland is monitoring this legislation and will continue to welcome qualified students as they have since the Dream Act was enacted, according to a representative for the University System.

By Hannah Brockway

Hogan’s Nonpublic schools funding gets ‘BOOST’ from Students

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Hundreds of private school students, faculty, parents and supporters piled onto Lawyers Mall in Annapolis on Tuesday for a rally to support Gov. Larry Hogan’s funding for nonpublic schools.

Hogan, legislators and education administrators spoke at the event, put together by the Maryland Council for American Private Education to support the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today program, known by its acronym, “BOOST.”

Cheered on by the many speakers, including Hogan, the crowd chanted “give a boost to BOOST” and “support all kids” throughout the rally.

The BOOST program “provides scholarships for some students who are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program to attend eligible nonpublic schools.”

Hogan told the crowd he himself attended private Catholic schools.

“It’s really important that you’re here,” Hogan, a Republican, told the crowd. “We’ve got some legislators across the street in the State House that need to hear from you and I want to make sure you guys are ready to make some noise.”

Among the schools with students and faculty present was St. Francis International School of Silver Spring and Hyattsville, Maryland.

The school’s principal, Tobias Harkleroad, told Capital News Service his fifth graders came to Annapolis to make sure government officials knew they were thankful for support.

They also went to the rally to learn about the political process and make their voices heard.

“We want to make sure that kids like them in nonpublic schools across the state are just as important to our elected officials as the wonderful children in our public schools,” Harkleroad said.

Marianne Schwenz is the mother of an eighth grader at St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School in Beltsville, Maryland.

Schwenz said the potential funding provided by BOOST would particularly help grow special needs programs, especially in Catholic schools, where she feels there isn’t enough staffing to address the needs of some students.

However, she’s happy with how legislators have responded to the nonpublic school needs over time.

Hogan’s budget, approved by state lawmakers, has increased in each of the past three years funds directed toward the BOOST program. An appropriation of $5 million in fiscal year 2017 was followed by a $5.5 appropriation the following year. Hogan’s proposal for fiscal year 2019 climbs up to $8.85 million. That budget remains under review by the legislature.

“I think (the funding) does definitely need to continue to grow, although I do think our voice is being heard a little more each year,” Schwenz said.

Other supporters included Delegates Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County, and Dana Stein, D-Baltimore County. Representatives from the Archdiocese of Washington and Baltimore Catholic schools also spoke, along with Maryland State Board of Education member, pastor Michael Phillips.

“Today, this is where all of you who attend wonderful nonpublic schools are going to go make sure that we protect our funding and our scholarships,” Hogan said.

Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy conducted a survey of 625 Maryland voters between Feb. 20 and Feb. 22 that found nearly two-thirds supported an increase in funding for the BOOST program. The poll also concluded 58 percent of voters surveyed would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports increasing the BOOST program.

“The facts are that since taking office, Governor Hogan has committed record K-12 education funding in his four budgets, totaling $25 billion,” Eric Shirk, spokesman for the state’s Department of Budget & Management wrote in an email. This includes $6.5 billion in the proposed 2019 fiscal year budget.

But Maryland State Education Association President Betty Weller disagreed with Hogan’s use of funds in a Jan. 17 statement.

“Another year, another Gov. Hogan budget that follows the policy priorities of Betsy DeVos rather than Marylanders,” Weller said, citing the U.S. education secretary, an advocate of charter schools and private school vouchers.

Weller said Hogan should not be funding a voucher program that “overwhelmingly benefits” students in private schools.

By Sean Whooley

Maryland Schools Need more Physical Education, lawmaker Says

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The majority of jurisdictions in the state set aside fewer than 90 minutes per week for physical education.
 
But for the past eight years, legislation introduced to require a higher physical activity and education standard in the state has still not seen progress. 
 
The sponsor of the legislation, Delegate Jay Walker D-Prince George’s, called it “a bill that we’ve seen too many times over the years.”
 
The proposal requires all public elementary schools to set aside a maximum of 150 minutes per week for physical activity, including a minimum of 90 minutes per week for physical education.
 
For required minutes not spent in physical education, elementary schools would have to designate a physical activity leadership team to plan and coordinate extra opportunities for activity, the bill states.
 
The biggest issue remains what the school districts would cut from their academic curriculums to provide more time for physical activity. 
 
Walker said he “talked to people that work with Boards of Education in the state (who) said if it’s mandated they would find a way to make it work.” 
 
During the bill’s hearing on Feb. 8, Delegate Carolyn Howard D-Prince George’s, asked how to incorporate more physical education.
 
“The question has always been, what do you remove or delete in teaching in schools so that we can get the 90 minutes?” asked Howard.
 
Newport Mill Middle School physical education teachers Matt Slatkin and Shannon Spencer have supported this legislation “from the ground up” because, they told Capital News Service, lack of elementary school physical education affects students when they attend middle school. 
 
Slatkin told the Capital News Service that Montgomery County Public Schools, where Newport Mill is located, “skirt” around the term physical activity by counting physical education with recess. 
 
While the county includes the 30 minutes a day for physical activity during recess, students may not even move at all, Slatkin said. He added that recess is often held indoors during the winter and in times of bad weather. 
 
Slatkin said physical education is taught by a professional teacher, whereas recess does not require a curriculum or standards, and does not teach anything. 
 
“You can’t try to compare recess to physical education,” said Slatkin. 
 
According to the Maryland State Department of Education, as of January 2018, Montgomery County has the lowest minimum amount of required physical education per week at 30 minutes, followed by Prince George’s with 40 minutes per week. 
 
According to a state analysis, 18 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions do not meet the 90-minute standard under the bill; at least four of those would need to hire additional staff — at a total cost of $13.7 million — to meet that requirement if the legislation passes. 
 
This includes $1.1 million for Allegany, $1.2 million for Cecil, $10.9 million for Montgomery, and $542,000 for Queen Anne’s; these amounts are expected to increase marginally over the following few years, according to the state analysis. Allegany would need 14 teachers, Cecil would need 17, Montgomery would need 133 and Queen Anne’s would need eight to meet the bill requirements, according to the fiscal analysis.
 
The other 14 jurisdictions that don’t require at least 90 minutes may also need an increase in funds to meet the standard, but they have not been assessed in the fiscal analysis.
 
The remaining 10 jurisdictions would not need additional funding because they already meet the proposed standards.
 
The bill would take effect on Oct. 1, but a local school system may apply for an extension until July 1, 2021, to ensure compliance.
 
The federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 altered allotted time for certain school activities, according to the state fiscal analysis.
 
Following the No Child Left Behind Act, a national study on curriculum by the Center on Education Policy found that schools prioritized time on tested subjects, including math and language arts, and spent less time on other subjects and activities, including lunch, physical education and recess. 
 
Walker said during committee testimony on Feb. 8 that the bill’s cost has decreased over the years and that “it is possible to implement this program.”
 
Patricia Swanson, legislative aide for Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education,  told Capital News Service the board opposed this legislation because it is a large unfunded mandate and does not believe this issue should be decided at a state level. 
 
Swanson also said “MCPS has taken action to clarify physical education time with schools beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, and is taking steps to gather information directly from each school on current schedules and class time.”
 
In the 2018 to 2019 school year grades K-5 will be required a minimum of 45 minutes of physical education per week, she said.
 
Children between 5 and 12 years old should get at least an hour per day of physical activity, according to The National Association for Sport and Physical Education. The activity should be intermittent and a mix of moderate and vigorous exercise, the association said.
 
While the bill is not expected to progress in the legislative session, Slatkin told the Capital News Service that he believes that as the public’s knowledge grows, so will support for the bill. 
 
“Nobody knew about this bill the past eight years and now it’s finally getting out,” said Slatkin. “It’s something that the parents want, the students want, and the teachers want.”
By Layne Litsinger

Resolutions Address Gender Gap in Maryland Businesses

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Lawmakers in Annapolis are calling attention to a gender diversity deficiency in Maryland’s boardrooms and influential private sector companies: Women are not being equally represented in top management positions.

Women make up 49 percent of the labor force in Maryland and 46.8 percent of the total U.S. labor force, according to the Maryland Commission for Women.

In 2016, a “Census of Women Board Directors in Maryland” by a Baltimore-based women’s advocacy group found that 14.6 percent of board seats at 77 publicly traded companies headquartered in the state were held by women.

Within those 77 companies, 10 had no women in executive positions or in their executive suites. The number decreased from 14 companies in 2015, according to that “Census.”

Overall, the number of women holding board seats from 2015 to 2016 increased by three, to 93 women directors, the Census found.

House and Senate joint resolutions urge all private-sector companies in Maryland to increase their gender diversity. Supporters hope that by December 2021, at least 30 percent of the directors of all companies doing business in the state will be women, and that companies measure their annual progress toward a goal of equal representation of men and women in leadership positions, according to the resolutions.

Both resolutions have been heard in their chambers’ respective committees, but by Wednesday afternoon had not advanced.

The resolutions were prompted by request by the Executive Alliance, an organization based in Baltimore that focuses on the success and leadership of accomplished women, according to Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, lead sponsor of the House resolution.

The group put out their 10th “Census of Women Board Directors in Maryland” this year, said Karen Bond, president of the Executive Alliance Board and executive director of Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore.

“We were shocked … to see how the needle had barely moved at all (from previous years),” said Bond of the Census findings.

“We felt we needed to go to our lawmakers and ask ‘Is this level of progress acceptable to you?’” added Bond.

“We have to break down those mythical barriers that have always existed and reach out to all of the successful women running companies…or we will never make it to the 30 percent (goal),” said Avis Yates River, president and CEO of Technology Concepts Group International, and a former executive at Exxon.

“There is a lot of value into investing in women entrepreneurs,” said Betty Hines, founder and CEO of the Women Elevating Women Symposium and Chapter Chair for the Women Presidents’ Organization, a nonprofit organization for women presidents of multimillion-dollar companies.

Hines acknowledged Maryland as a leader that has made many strides for gender equality, including having a greater percentage than the national average of women in the workforce, but also noted that to stay ahead the state must continue making progress.

“When corporate boards meet, each board member should bring a guest from outside and get to know them/ help give them more experience…I know many women who are more than qualified and deserve a seat at the table,” said Hines.

By Hannah Brockway

Maryland Senate Passes Revised Cyber-Bullying Law 

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Maryland lawmakers in 2013 passed “Grace’s Law,” a bipartisan bill that made it a misdemeanor to repeatedly and maliciously bully someone through use of a computer or cellphone. Five years later, some of the same legislators are back to update the law to reflect the new media landscape.

“Grace’s Law 2.0,” which is designed specifically for social media cyberbullying, passed in the Senate unanimously Thursday despite pushback from First Amendment advocates last week.

Lead sponsor Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, remained firm that this is to protect against “egregious” messages, intended to personally harm, posted online. He’s determined to adjust laws to the speed of dissemination of such material.

“Facebook doesn’t stop when you leave the school grounds,” Zirkin told lawmakers. “Neither does Twitter or any of these other things. These are growing problems, not isolated to Maryland, and we have to get better at this.”

“Unfortunately, once somebody does this – (simulates pushing a button) – it’s all she wrote,” he said. “You’re about to do that harm the second you push that button to your thousand friends.”

In today’s media world, Zirkin said, a warning means it’s already too late. Which is the basis of his other proposal in the two-bill package.

Senate bill 725, which is expected to hit the full Senate floor next week, gives authority to school principals to report cyber abuse to law enforcement directly, instead of having to first go through a board of education. Based on legislation in Texas nicknamed “David’s Law,” created after 16-year old David Molak of San Antonio committed suicide in January 2016, it also makes it easier for victims to get court relief.

Under current rules, Zirkin said, civil injunctive relief requires a plaintiff to show “immediate, substantial and irreparable harm,” a process he believes is slow and outdated. “A single, huge act by that bully … you can’t take it back,” Zirkin said.

The more encompassing proposal of the two, Grace’s Law 2.0, cleared the Senate on Thursday.

That legislation, Senate bill 726, would increase the penalty for threatening or defamatory statements about a minor, or the parent of a minor, from a one-year maximum sentence and $500 fine to three years and $10,000. In addition, it adds a clause that would increase the jail term to 10 years if the violator intends to “induce a minor to commit suicide,” as written in the text.

The bill also broadens the scope of social media cyberbullying. Updates include prohibiting the creation of fake social media profiles and material meant to “intimidate, torment or harass a minor”; prohibiting logging into a minor’s social media account and distributing pictures; and establishing that telling a minor to “go kill yourself” online isn’t protected speech.

Lastly, Grace’s Law 2.0 incorporates David’s Law for school-related cyberbullying. For that reason, Zirkin said, the bills must go together. Reporting such incidents at school, he said, only helps if the revisions are adopted.

The effort doesn’t come without resistance. The ACLU, which stood in opposition to the 2013 law, is concerned about over-criminalization and too drastic of penalties.

“However well-intentioned – and I believe (Grace’s Law) is well intentioned – I believe this bill is hopelessly overbroad,” said David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, during the Feb. 20 hearing.

“One does not have to be unconcerned about bullying or blind to the incredible cruelty that people can inflict on each other, to also be concern about giving the government the ability to punish, as a crime, huge swaths of protected speech.”

Christine McComas, whose late daughter, Grace McComas, was the inspiration for Grace’s Law, joined a couple other mothers and an aunt of suicide victims to testify in favor of the bills. Grace killed herself on Easter Sunday in 2012, the victim of repeated cyber abuse. Christine said these laws would target “dehumanizing cyberbullying” faster.

“The proliferation of cyber equipment and applications continues to quickly morph and change,” McComas said. “Children need additional protections from those who would use it for harm.”

Marla Posey-Moss, vice president of advocacy with the Maryland PTA, said in an email Tuesday that her organization supports the Senate’s effort.

“Maryland PTA is pleased that legislation has been introduced to protect youth from bullying via the consideration of expanded forms of social media and technology,” she said.

Posey-Moss called the effort “very strategic,” but added that it’s important to be precise when criminalizing certain speech.

Zirkin, for his part, has acknowledged the difficulty in navigating such a law but told Capital News Service that if Maryland addressed it five years ago – and other states have since taken it a step further – Maryland can do it again.

“The ACLU had the same argument (against the 2013 law), but it wasn’t unconstitutional,” Zirkin said. “The sky didn’t fall down.”

By Zach Shapiro

Bill would Criminalize Knowing Failure to Report Child Abuse

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Legislation that would make knowingly failing to report child abuse a crime in Maryland was passed by the Senate, but faces some skepticism in the House.
 
Under current law, if a mandatory reporter – defined as health care practitioners, police officers, educators, and human service workers – believes that a child has been abused or neglected, they must notify the local department of Child Protective Services or a law enforcement agency. 
 
Failure to do so could result in a loss of license, due to a 2016 law in Maryland, but it is not a crime. 
 
“This closes that loophole,” said Adam Rosenberg, the executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, who testified in both chambers on behalf of the new proposal. “This is about being able to hold that very last group of people, who have been enabling abuse to go on, accountable.” 
 
The House bill (HB0500), sponsored by Delegates Carlo Sanchez and Erek Barron, Democrats representing Prince George’s, proposes that a violator would be guilty of a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The Senate version (SB0132), sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, includes the same punishment.
 
The Senate bill has been approved by that chamber; the identical House bill has had a hearing but hasn’t advanced out of committee, where a number of House Judiciary members have raised concerns about the new child-abuse proposal.
 
Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, sponsored the 2016 law, in which a complaint about a failure to report is brought to the worker’s licensing board for review and possible termination. She told the Capital News Service that she’d like to see effects from that law, which began in October 2016, further develop before creating “new crimes.” 
 
“Creating a crime (could) mean that we’re going to have a lot of reports that shouldn’t have been reported,” said Dumais. “I think we just need to tread carefully. We have some pretty strict laws on the books already.”
 
Dumais – who sponsored a bill this session denying parental rights to rapists that Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law Tuesday – said she is concerned that mandatory reporters would plead the fifth in court if they face possible indictment. 
 
Sanchez said he doesn’t see over-reporting as an issue. He said reports can fall through the cracks in transition from the mandatory reporter to Child Protective Services – which is the current system – so the ability to take a claim straight to a prosecutor could take pressure off social services and make abuse easier to catch early. 
 
Last year a similar bill passed in the Senate but died in the House. The latest proposal has less opposition. The Maryland State Education Association, for example, was against it last year but said in an email to Capital News Service that this bill “takes a step in the right direction by clarifying reporting requirements.” Which, they added, “will help prevent misreporting that drains resources and distracts from real cases of abuse.”
 
Variations of these efforts have been around for close to a decade, but they’ve gained more attention after the case of Deonte Carraway, a 24-year-old school worker in Prince George’s County who was arrested in February 2016 .
 
Carraway was sentenced in August 2017 to 75 years in federal prison for 15 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor to produce child pornography, involving 12 children from 9 to 13 years old. He was sentenced to 100 years on 23 counts of sex abuse in Prince George’s County a month later.
 
Despite complaints to the principal of Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary School, Michelle Williams, from parents and administrators about Carraway’s behavior, Williams could not be prosecuted, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks told state lawmakers. 
Williams was placed on administrative leave shortly after Carraway’s arrest, Alsobrooks said. An attorney for Williams said late last year that she denied wrongdoing in this case and was unaware of abuse. 
 
This new bill would enable the state to prosecute a knowing failure by an adult to report abuse. 
 
“We learned that the principal knew something wasn’t right, as did other school officials, but did nothing about it,” said Alsobrooks, who was one of the prosecutors in that case. “We were able to hold Mr. Caraway accountable for his crimes. But what we have not done is further close the loophole – to (be) able to assure parents that this will never happen again.”
By Zach Shapiro

Sponsor of Bill to Legalize Hemp in Maryland Thinks this is the Year

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Proponents of industrial hemp say legalization of the cannabis relative offers many potential benefits, and, if a bill in the state Legislature is approved, Maryland might be part of a growing acceptance of the plant.

A key obstacle remains lack of education about hemp’s properties and capabilities, proponents say.

“There’s no hidden agenda, they are business people and they are trying to grow a product,” said Rona Kobell, who spoke at an Abell Foundation Hemp forum on Feb. 2 in Annapolis, Maryland.

According to a Jan. 25 report by Kobell, hemp is controversial because it’s associated with marijuana. Both plants come from the genus Cannabis, but hemp is mainly grown for its fiber and oil.

Michael Renfroe, a biology professor from James Madison University, spoke at the forum about the common misconceptions between marijuana and hemp. Forum participants said they are not the same.

“To say you can’t tell the difference between hemp and marijuana is to say you can’t tell the difference between broccoli and Brussels sprouts,” said Renfroe.
The main differences between hemp and marijuana are the tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC — content, and the cultivation process said professor Ronald Turco, Agronomy Department head at Purdue University.

Hemp, when grown, contains less than 0.3 percent THC, whereas marijuana can contain up to 30 percent, Turco said.

He also explained that hemp is grown as a row crop in fields for its seeds and fiber, whereas marijuana is hand grown and harvested for buds containing THC, which is what gives marijuana users a high.

Turco said marijuana is listed as a Schedule I substance making it illegal at the federal level, and the only way to distinguish between hemp and marijuana is through lab procedures measuring THC content.

Federal regulations state that industrial hemp can be produced if a state legalizes an agricultural pilot program to study its cultivation, growth and marketing.

As of 2016, it is legal for the Maryland Department of Agriculture or any institution of higher learning to grow industrial hemp for research purposes.

Maryland has legalized medical cannabis, and decriminalized marijuana use in smaller amounts; proponents say this should encourage the expanded legalization of hemp in the state.

According to the Abell Foundation’s hemp report, the crop would bring economic and environmental opportunity to the state.

Economically, the report said, hemp creates new jobs and generates more revenue.

The report justifies that environmentally, hemp requires no pesticides to grow. It also explained that hemp replenishes the soil, reduces pollution and helps with land erosion and runoff.

The report also states that the main uses of hemp include fiber, fuel, food and medicine.

“Hemp is grown for fiber and oil…,” said Renfroe. “You cannot get high from it.”

Kobell said during the hemp forum that many people have claimed that hemp could do things it couldn’t actually do. Accurate information about hemp has been crucial to push legalization.

“There is hope for hemp because of education,” said Kobell.

Hemp seeds can be used in foods, such as snack bars.
Since the seeds are not legal to grow outside of the department of agriculture or an institution of higher education, anyone else who wishes to use the seeds must import them from overseas. It is against federal law to transport the seeds across state lines.

According to the Abell Foundation Hemp Report, most hemp seed is imported from Europe, and countries such as Canada, Ukraine and China as large leaders in hemp cultivation.

Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery, this year introduced an Industrial Hemp Pilot Program bill to facilitate its growth in Maryland.

Fraser-Hidalgo first introduced the legislation for hemp legalization in 2015 but it failed largely because of lack of education about hemp use, he said.

The 2018 bill establishes regulations that allow the agriculture department or universities to register farmers who could then grow, process, manufacture and market industrial hemp.

Alex Hempfield, whose last name was legally changed from Joseph, is the owner of Livity Foods LLC in Rockville, Maryland, a business selling nutritional bars that contain hemp seeds.

Hempfield said the legalization of hemp growth will alter customer perception and make people more informed about the product.

“Its economic value will get better. It will employ more people and make more money,” said Hempfield.

Even if the legislation Fraser-Hidalgo introduced on Jan. 31 passes, Hempfield said, the process to obtain infrastructure, create and grow the crop will take a few years.

Four states grew hemp in 2015, according to Kobell’s report. As of 2018, there are 19 states that grow hemp, the report found, and product sales accumulated a revenue of $688 million.

Fraser-Hidalgo’s bill is scheduled to be heard on Feb. 14 in the House Environment and Transportation committee.

By Layne Litsinger