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Members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee listen to testimony from Diamonte Brown, director of Out 4 Justice, on various bills, including the Maryland Second Chance Act of 2015. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

Legislators and advocates have spent the past three years addressing various concerns about the Maryland Second Chance Act. In that time, they have won over opponents making this year’s iteration of the bill, which would largely shield non-violent misdemeanor convictions from public view, one that is primed for passage.

That was the message expressed by supporters testifying on behalf of the act before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in Annapolis last Thursday. However, opposition remains from groups representing employers and landlords in the state, concerned about preserving the decision making ability of the people making hiring and leasing decisions.

This year’s Second Chance Act, being considered in the capital as Senate Bill 526 (SB 526), could profoundly alter the lives of over 200,000 Marylanders currently living with non-violent misdemeanor convictions which impact their opportunities for employment, housing, and even education, said Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County), lead sponsor of SB 526.

“The purpose of this legislation is to give these people a second chance in the workforce, in the economy, in the society,” said Raskin, who added later that, “in the legislative process, we’ve really, I think, boiled down to a very seaworthy vehicle.”

The bill, which requires a three year waiting period before someone can petition a court to have their record for certain non-violent misdemeanors shielded (made invisible from public view with exceptions for certain parties, like law enforcement agencies), and which requires notice of the shielding application be given to both the State’s Attorney’s Office as well as any victims who may raise objections to the petition, first emerged in 2012. Since then legislators and advocates have worked with parties opposed to the bill in order to address their concerns, producing the current version which they argue is ready for passage in the legislature.

Sen. Michael Hough (R-Carroll and Frederick Counties), who formerly opposed the legislation as a member of the House of Delegates, testified in favor of SB 526, saying “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the advocates for this because they really worked with us, and they really scaled this back from where it was . . . This really makes sense. It’s reasonable crimes that we’re talking about (shielding), we’re not talking about expungement.”

Caryn Aslan, a senior policy advocate with the Job Opportunities Task Force, also testified on behalf of the bill, saying, “I think it’s very important to remember that there’s a process that individuals must go through. And the fact that an individual must wait a waiting period, not commit any other crimes, petition the courts, that is an individual whom we want to give a second chance. That is a disciplined individual that’s saying I need this opportunity in order to move forward.”

Opposition to the bill was expressed by groups representing business owners and landlords. They argued that while people should have second chances in areas like employment or housing, the decision to do so should remain in the hands of employers and landlords, left free to make an individual assessment unfettered by a government policy.

Jessica Cooper, the Maryland state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, an organization representing over 4,000 small business owners, told the committee, “The business community generally supports efforts to give second chances to employees . . . but a business owner is better positioned than the government to determine who they hire, and they make these decisions based on many different factors. This is not the only they take into consideration, but access to public criminal records is an important resource for small employers,” said Cooper. She gave the example of someone looking to hire a person to manage her company’s inventory having an interest in knowing about a past, misdemeanor theft conviction (currently a theft under $1,000), which SB 526 would make eligible for shielding.

Tommy Tompsett, the director of government affairs for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association Inc., a trade association for landlords, said it was important for landlords to have access to criminal records because they have to take into account not only a prospective renter, but the community of tenants into which that prospective renter would be allowed. “We (landlords) do rent to people with criminal backgrounds. I mean we do it all the time, but I think it’s a business decision on our part to look at what that background entails.”

ralejandro@afro.com