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O'Malley Likely to Veto Drug Bill

Gov. Martin O'Malley(D) said this morning that he is inclined to veto a bill that would make twice-convicted drug dealers eligible for parole, calling drug dealing a "violent crime" that should be severely punished.

"I'm not sure that I can sign a bill that would do away with the penalties we have in Maryland -- or lessen the penalties -- for second-time drug dealers," the governor said on the Bill Press Show on Sirius satellite radio. "I think drug dealing is a violent crime."

House Bill 992, approved narrowly by the General Assembly last month, would put Maryland among two dozen states turning back a 25-year national trend toward mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. Nonviolent offenders who now serve 10-year, fixed sentences for drug distribution could be released after 2 1/2 years.

Advocates for repealing fixed prison terms say that locking up some of these defendants for 10 years with no chance of parole punishes many low-level dealers who get the same time as more serious dealers caught with larger quantities of drugs. Many of them are dealing to support their habit, and the bill's original language included money for drug treatment. But it passed with none in a tight budget year,prompting opponents to say they could not support it.

The legislation is a top priority of the Legislative Black Caucus, whose members are concerned that African Americans comprise the majority of defendants jailed in Maryland drug charges. Despite his support among black voters, O'Malley said his two terms as mayor of Baltimore made him sensitive to drug-related violence that merits stern penalites.

"When I was elected mayor of Baltimore, it was a time when our city was the most violent in America," he told Bill Press. "We need to do more drug treatment. But I'm not inclined to sign the bill."

Black leaders, including the measure's sponsor, Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), a Baltimore defense attorney, are lobbying O'Malley heavily to sign the bill. Public defenders, who support the bill, said they were disappointed.

" I don't think mandatory laws are serving any real purpose," said Janet Callous, a public defender in Prince George's County who has represented numerous clients serving 10-year terms. ".If we are talking about people who are shown to be kingpins it makes more sense. But a lot of people are selling small amounts of cocaine because they're users themselves."

Lisa Rein

By Phyllis Jordan  |  May 10, 2007; 1:11 PM ET
Categories:  Lisa Rein  
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