updated 2/28/2007 11:46:36 AM ET 2007-02-28T16:46:36

Maryland's mandatory sentences for repeat drug offenders disproportionately imprison blacks and don't necessarily deter crime, according to a report from a Washington-based group that promotes alternatives to incarceration.

The Justice Policy Institute report, scheduled for release Tuesday, was attacked by the Drug Free America Foundation Inc. as a misleading document intended to bolster support for drug decriminalization.

Both groups said Maryland should expand the availability of addiction treatment and counseling for those convicted of drug crimes.

The report was commissioned by state Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, D-Baltimore, whose bill to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee. Anderson didn't immediately return a call Monday from The Associated Press.

Mandatory minimums are sentencing laws requiring state judges to give fixed prison terms to those convicted of specific crimes. In Maryland, small-time drug dealers who sell to sustain a habit usually receive treatment for their first offense, the Justice Policy Institute said, but they often face mandatory prison terms for subsequent convictions ranging from two years for a second offense to 40 years for a fourth offense involving certain narcotics.

The report concludes that while less than a third of Maryland's population is black, nearly 90 percent of drug offenders sent to prison under Maryland's mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the past five years were black — even though national rates of substance dependence and drug dealing among blacks and whites are virtually identical.

The report says 18 states, including Delaware, recently rolled back mandatory minimums or restructured other harsh penalties for drug trafficking.

"Maryland needs to take a hard look at the costs and benefits of its mandatory drug sentencing laws, and consider options that are more effective, more fair and less costly than prison," said Justice Policy Institute Executive Director Jason Ziedenberg.

Ziedenberg denied that the Justice Institute aims to decriminalize drugs, as alleged by Drug Free America Executive Director Calvina Fay, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Fay said mandatory minimums should be reviewed and adjusted as needed, but that long prison terms are an effective crime deterrent.

"Let's face it, when criminals are behind bars and off of our streets, they're not out there committing crime," Fay said.

She said the disproportionate number of blacks imprisoned for drug crimes reflects the inability of poor defendants to afford sophisticated defense lawyers, not a flaw in the sentencing laws.

"I think there's no question in this country that people with less financial means are less fortunate when they go through the court system," Fay said. "But that is not limited to just the drug issue. That is a criminal justice issue across the board."

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