MarylandReporter.com spoke with Senate Judicial Proceedings (JPR) Committee Chairman Will Smith (D-Montgomery) on Wednesday about his policy goals for the upcoming legislative session which begins on Jan. 13, 2021. They include providing COVID relief, housing and rental relief, and enacting policing and parole reform measures. Judicial Proceedings is one of the most well-known committees in the General Assembly and is charged with crafting the some of state’s most intricate civil and criminal statutes.
MarylandReporter.com: We are exactly two weeks away from the beginning of the 2021 legislative session. This year, because of restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, committee hearings will be held virtually and witnesses will have to testify via the internet. How do you think this will affect the legislative process?
Smith: It will be more limited with respect to testimony because we are limiting slots. So that will be a little bit more constrictive. But in many ways, it is going to be the most transparent legislative session we have ever had because everything will be online and streamed live. Gavel-to-gavel coverage on the floor. But every aspect of the committee hearing process will also be streamed live, which is something you would not have normally seen. And because we have to socially distance…the workgroups that happen more organically and the work that happens in the halls or in someone’s office-that will not be happening. It will be happening in the committee room out front and online. So in many ways this will be a more transparent legislative session than ever before.
MarylandReporter.com: Some of the pre-filed committee bills deal with issues such as gun safety and compensation for erroneously convicted persons. Could you elaborate on those proposals and explain how you see the committee’s agenda playing out during the session?
Smith: We have a very aggressive agenda in the Judicial Proceedings Committee this year. The first order of business will be to handle things with respect to COVID-19 and the pandemic. So, for us, the things that fall under our purview would be things like housing relief. We will also be addressing issues with respect to civil representation, at least for landlord-tenant issues and especially evictions. We are looking at that. Also, issues of immunity for hospitals and for small businesses that are COVID-related. Those are definitely coming up in the legislature and will be very controversial. But those are definitely the issues that we will be dealing with early on in the session because they deal directly with the pandemic. Police reform is still at the very top of the agenda and we will be working to get that done within the first two to three weeks of session as well. We have parole reform…We have immigration issues coming up. And then the exoneree bill is also something that we are keenly focused in on and I want to push out of the committee within the first two to three weeks.
MarylandReporter.com: In September the committee held a series of virtual hearings on 15 bills aimed at addressing police misconduct. What is the status of those bills?
Smith: The goal there was to kickstart the legislative process early. I said at the time that this was going to be an iterative process, meaning those fifteen bills were just the start of the conversation. And that my expectation would be that from the start of those hearings to the beginning of the legislative session that a series of workgroups and workshops would happen with stakeholders ranging from academic experts to impacted communities. And then more refined ideas would be presented at the beginning of the legislative session. And that is exactly what happened. So I suspect that those fifteen proposals will be consolidated into something a little bit smaller. We will still have a number of reforms before us.
MarylandReporter.com: What are your three main policy goals for the session?
Smith: First would be COVID relief with respect to renters and housing. Number two would be policing reform-meaningful once in a generation policing reform. And then parole reform. And in that order: COVID-relief, housing relief, rental relief, policing, and parole reform.
MarylandReporter.com: To briefly touch on a federal issue, what do you make of the debate in Washington over raising stimulus payments to $2,000 per person?
Smith: The Senate should follow suit with the House. It’s relief that Marylanders and Americans desperately need to get us through. We are at the beginning of the end of the pandemic but we have a long way to go. And people have long suffered. And the relief is necessary. Frankly, it’s a sound investment in our future and for the recovery. It will ultimately save money and keep people out of economic peril.