In some ways, Maryland is a progressive state on re-entry for formerly incarcerated individuals. Maryland is one of 14 states that immediately restores voting rights upon release, and one of 26 states with Ban the Box policies, which prohibit most public employers from asking about criminal history until a pending employment offer has been made.
In other ways, Maryland has much work to do. The University System of Maryland (including my university) contracts with Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) to buy furniture produced by inmates paid significantly below minimum wage. And there are no state efforts to reduce housing barriers for those with non-violent felony drug convictions, who are universally banned from federally subsidized housing through Section 8 and from living with someone receiving Section 8.
The 2017 General Assembly session passed two bills to support the re-entry process for Maryland's formerly incarcerated population. The first, HB0860/SB0853, sponsored by Del. Brooke E. Lierman in the House and Sen. Richard S. Madaleno in the Senate, reduces barriers to receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, AKA welfare) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, AKA food stamps) benefits for those with non-violent felony drug convictions. The second, HB0694/SB0543, sponsored by Del. Maggie McIntosh in the House and Sen. Joan Carter Conway in the Senate, implements ban the box legislation for admission to institutions of higher learning.
While HB0860/SB0853 was recently enacted into law (without the governor's signature), on May 26, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed HB0693/SB0453, citing its role in "curtailing [college and universities'] ability to ensure a safe campus environment" and saying it "tips the scales to the detriment of public safety." Mr. Hogan has a previous record of vetoing legislation which promotes successful re-entry opportunities for Maryland's formerly incarcerated population, including his 2016 veto of legislation to restore voting rights to all offenders upon release, which was overridden by the General Assembly.
While colleges are not immune to violent crime, campuses are often safer than adjacent non-campus communities, and many violent crimes on campus are committed by individuals without prior criminal histories. This includes high-profile college murders: the murder of Richard Collins III by Sean Urbanski on the University of Maryland campus; the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007 by Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 33 students; and the Umpqua Community College shooting of 2015 by Chris Harper-Mercer, who killed 10 students, to name a few.
A survey of 273 colleges and universities reported that 160 considered criminal justice information in the admissions process, and of these schools, 90 percent report a negative perception made toward those with felony records, and 75 percent report a negative perception of those with non-violent drug and alcohol felonies. Of schools who may deny applications based on their criminal history, two-thirds of these schools do not inform applicants as to the reason for their denial, and a smaller number do not inform applicants of appeals processes if they wish to challenge their admissions denial based on criminal history.
Although keeping students safe is an important priority for schools, denying applicants on the basis of a criminal history is part of a larger system that continually disenfranchises formerly incarcerated individuals even after they supposedly pay their dues to society. It is also hypocritical to veto ban the box for Maryland schools when Maryland already has enacted ban the box policies for public employers. However, even Ban the Box is limited since it does not apply to private employers, and most states (including Maryland) do not prohibit pulling an employment offer if and when a criminal screening is conducted.
All of these barriers to re-entry for formerly incarcerated individuals lead to what author Michelle Alexander calls "second-class citizenship" in her 2010 book "The New Jim Crow." This social exclusion intersects with many offenders' already disadvantaged backgrounds. In most states, individuals with felony convictions lose their voting rights temporarily (either during their incarceration and/or when on parole or probation) or permanently, making them legally disenfranchised.
This past year has seen notable progressive legislation from our General Assembly in the areas of reproductive rights, environmental rights, and workers' rights, and has started to show how the rights of the formerly incarcerated are an equally worthy and important social justice issue that requires significant policy and social change. The General Assembly should be applauded for repealing TANF/SNAP restrictions (HB0860/SB0853) for those with non-violent felony drug convictions, but unfortunately Mr. Hogan continues to perpetuate discrimination against formerly incarcerated individuals, denying them fair educational opportunities and a real second chance to positively contribute to their communities.
Aliya Webermann is a graduate student and research assistant at University of Maryland, Baltimore County