ANNAPOLIS — Under Maryland law, nonviolent first-time offenders of relatively minor crimes can plead guilty and receive probation, and upon successful completion, continue without the burden of a criminal conviction that haunts the rest of their life.
This is not the case for immigrants in the state. In order to qualify for probation, they must plead guilty to a crime which, for them, may result in deportation or make them ineligible to receive a green card or become a citizen.
Lawmakers, lawyers and state attorneys, including Maryland’s attorney general, agree that the 47-year-old law, which gave thousands of Marylanders a second chance, unfairly harms immigrants, including those who live and work legally in the state, immigrants brought to the country as children, so-called “dreamers” protected by the federal Deferred Action Policy for Childhood Arrivals, and undocumented residents.
Senator Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, and Del. Wanika B. Fisher, D-Prince George’s, is sponsoring legislation called Probation Not Deportation (SB0265/HB0559) that would change state law, called Probation Before Judgment, so that immigrants would not be vulnerable to further penalties.
The Senate took up the bill this week and the House of Delegates will hold a hearing in the coming weeks.
“The current PBJ Act has unwittingly created unequal enforcement for citizens and non-citizens, and this bill is largely a technical fix for achieving equal justice,” Lee, the project’s lead sponsor, said Wednesday. bill, during a hearing on the legislation before the Senate. Prosecution Commission.
The provision adds a method for a judge to grant immigrants probation without them pleading guilty during the sentencing process. Advocates, including criminal justice officials, said it would not erode the original method of obtaining probation.
Federal immigration law interprets probation as a conviction because the person has pleaded guilty to a crime and it can lead to serious consequences that the bill is supposed to eliminate.
During the hearing, witnesses testified that the federal immigration policy undermines the intent of the PBJ, but can be remedied at the state level by making probation a sentencing sentence under state and federal law.
They also said the law had a disproportionate impact on people of color. Attorney Emily Jones of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, an organization representing detained immigrants, said more than half of her clients were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after coming into contact with the penal system and almost 99% of them are black or brown. .
Some senators are concerned, however, that the bill could violate due process of the Maryland Constitution.
“You can’t put people on probation unless you have them plead guilty,” Sen. Michael Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll, said during the hearing.
Lawyers and criminal law experts countered that the provision would only suspend the guilty verdict, acknowledging that the facts of guilt exist.
State attorneys for Caroline and Montgomery counties testified in favor of the bill at the hearing, and the committee received a letter of support from the attorney general’s office.
The letter said the bill “will help avoid devastating immigration consequences for people who commit petty crimes.”
In an interview with Capital News Service, Gabriela Kahrl, an attorney and associate director at the University of Maryland-Baltimore’s Chacon Center for Immigrant Law, said the law change “would create equal opportunity for probation for every resident of the Maryland, regardless of whether they are US citizens or not.
“The person gets nothing but not triggering federal immigration law that considers it a conviction,” Kahrl said.
Janice Alonzo, an academic advisor and adjunct faculty member at Community College of Baltimore County, told lawmakers Wednesday that she fears a family member under DACA protection could be deported after being placed on probation for driving. under the influence of alcohol two years ago.
The man has taken alcohol counseling classes and is working to pay the court-ordered fine, Alonzo said. Deportation would tear her family apart, she told the committee.
“We cried and are very worried that this family member could be sent home because of his one night mistake,” she said.
The current law has devastating consequences for people who are often guilty of petty crimes, including theft, drug possession or a dispute, said John F. Gossart, a former U.S. immigration judge who also testified at the hearing.
“We’re talking about individuals who have made a mistake, own up to their mistakes, and are ready to rehabilitate,” Gossart, a Baltimore immigration court judge for 31 years, told Capital News Service in an interview.
He is a member of the board of directors of the Immigration Law Section of the Federal Bar Association, a voluntary organization of private and government attorneys and judges practicing law in federal court.
Gossart has said during his career that he had no choice but to issue deportation orders for over a hundred immigrants who had been probationed. The law did not allow him to give them a second chance even though he thought they deserved one, he said.
He remembers kicking out a permanent resident on probation, a father of two U.S. citizens and a home owner whom Gossart described as a decent and good person.
“None of that mattered,” he said. “I had no choice. I was right under the law, but I didn’t do justice that day,” he said.
By Vanessa G. Sanchez
Capital News Service