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Criminal Justice Reforms, Urban Decay, To Be Session Focus

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Top leaders in Maryland's Legislature and aides to Gov. Larry Hogan say criminal justice reform and battling urban decay and other problems in Baltimore will be top priorities in the upcoming legislative session.

The initiatives come after economic problems and police-community relations in the state's largest city were thrust in the national spotlight with Baltimore's unrest in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death.

"Baltimore is the major city in Maryland, and you can't have a successful Maryland unless you have a successful Baltimore in my mind," House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. "So, I do think that there are some initiatives there that you have to take to help get them back on their feet, prove to the rest of the country that we can make it work here in Maryland."

Hogan is finalizing a plan to reduce urban blight in Baltimore, and he will be including money in the state budget for it, said spokesman Matt Clark. The details are expected to be announced in early January.

"Fixing what's broken in Baltimore starts with the sea of abandoned, dilapidated buildings that infect entire neighborhoods," Hogan wrote in a September op-ed in The Baltimore Sun. "These empty, decaying structures are a breeding ground for crime and an impediment to private sector investment."

Busch mentioned plans to increase job training in schools. He also expressed interest in addressing blight in Baltimore, noting

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's "Vacants to Value" initiative, which redevelops abandoned properties.

The challenges are creating an area of common interest for the Republican governor and a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

However, it remains to be seen how well they will work together in the second 90-day session of Hogan's tenure. The last session, which was strained by budget disagreements, ended less than a week before Gray's death on April 19, with differences over education funding unresolved.

Lawmakers also will be using recommendations from a panel that studied Maryland's criminal justice system this year as a framework for legislation to revamp policies on sentencing, as well as parole and probation. The panel, which was assisted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, estimated Maryland could save a projected $247 million over the next decade through reforms in the state's correctional system.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who pushed for creating the panel in the last session, said other states have successfully implemented reforms after similar reviews.

"They've been able to close prisons, redirect money to avoid recidivism by creating beds for drug abusers, ankle bracelets to monitor parolees as well as more parole and probation agents to make certain that when people are released from prison that they have a home, they have a job and they stay out of trouble," said Miller, D-Calvert.

Hogan has been supportive of the council's review.

Separately, a panel of lawmakers has been examining ways to increase police accountability. The workgroup, which was formed several days after the rioting in Baltimore, is considering shortening the time stipulated in a rule that prevents a police officer suspected of a crime from being interrogated for up to 10 days after an alleged incident. Police reform advocates also have been critical of a rule requiring claims against police to be filed within 90 days.

The panel is scheduled to release its recommendations two days before the session officially begins on Jan. 13. Miller said while the panel will make recommendations regarding police discipline, he also wants to create provisions to reward police who do a good job.

(Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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