This page showcases pieces written by University of Baltimore School of Law Dean Ronald Weich, including op-eds, speeches, position papers and other works of relevance to the legal community. It also includes excerpts from and links to articles in which he is quoted.
Dean Ronald Weich and Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, in The Washington Post online: "Strengthen the Justice Reinvestment Act by repealing Maryland's mandatory sentencing laws" (March 16, 2016)
Maryland legislators recently took an important first step toward improved public safety by introducing the Justice Reinvestment Act. This package of common-sense reforms will reduce Maryland’s unnecessarily large prison population, freeing up several hundred million dollars to expand reentry and treatment resources badly needed across the state. We urge enactment of this historic legislation.
We also believe the final bill should be strengthened by including more comprehensive changes to Maryland’s drug sentencing laws. Specifically, mandatory sentencing provisions in the Maryland Code should be repealed and sentences for drug sales should be reduced consistent with research on the negligible impact of long sentences on public safety. By seizing this opportunity for long-overdue reform, the General Assembly can make the Maryland criminal-justice system fairer and more effective for everyone.
The Justice Reinvestment Act reflects the work of the bipartisan Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council (JRCC), established by the legislature last year to “develop a statewide framework of sentencing and corrections policies to safely reduce Maryland’s incarcerated population, control corrections spending and reinvest in more effective, less expensive strategies to increase public safety and reduce recidivism.”
Following a lengthy and rigorous process that included a thorough review of justice system data and input from advocates and community members, the JRCC issued a final report with recommendations to the state legislature. It is estimated that these reforms would produce nearly $250 million in correctional savings that could be redirected to drug and mental-health treatment, housing, job training, better community supervision for people released from prison and other proven approaches to make communities safer.
The Justice Reinvestment Act includes useful changes to drug sentencing laws, but proposals to repeal mandatory minimums and to revise sentences for drug sales were not included in the final set of recommendations because they did not achieve the same level of consensus. Nonetheless, these fundamental reforms are consistent with the goals of the JRCC and should be included in the final package during legislative deliberations.
Mandatory minimum sentencing — in which the legislature sets a floor below which a judge cannot set the sentence — is a fatally flawed policy. Sentences should be imposed by judges in individual cases, not by legislators in categories of cases. Mandatory-sentencing laws are not truly mandatory, but the discretion to avoid them rests with prosecutors rather than with neutral judges. By depriving judges of needed discretion, mandatory minimums unnecessarily ratchet up the length of sentences, costing taxpayers millions of dollars with little benefit to public safety.
There is no research to demonstrate that mandatory minimum sentences reduce crime. Meanwhile, mandatory sentencing laws produce unacceptable racial disparities. A disproportionate number of African American is affected, contributing to the destabilization of African American neighborhoods.
The public favors changing these laws. Seventy percent of Maryland voters support repeal of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, and 78 percent of Maryland voters agree that the state spends too much money locking up nonviolent drug offenders.
Mandatory sentencing is one of the major contributors to the phenomenon of mass incarceration, which is a problem across the United States, not just in Maryland. As a result of inflated mandatory sentences and other misguided policies, there are now more than 2 million people in federal and state prisons and jails. The U.S. incarceration rate far exceeds that of other democratic countries. The University of Baltimore School of Law, with generous support from the Abell Foundation, has undertaken efforts to address the causes of mass incarceration, including unwise sentencing laws.
Mandatory minimum and other drug sentencing reforms belong in the Justice Reinvestment Act, which is designed to rationalize the way the state allocates scarce resources. The final bill should include bold changes to sentencing laws in order to increase year-to-year savings, allowing more constructive and sustained investments in Baltimore and other economically challenged communities.
Dean Ronald Weich contributed an op-ed to The Baltimore Sun on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. The trial of William Porter, one of six Baltimore City police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, began on Nov. 30.
Here is the full text of the op-ed:
Some commodities are easily measured, but justice is not among them. Once the trials of the six Baltimore police officers charged in connection with Freddie Gray's death have concluded, how will we know whether justice was achieved?
Let's begin by recognizing what the criminal justice system can accomplish — and what it can't.
Some see the forthcoming trials as a way to vindicate a young man who died in police custody. But the trial scheduled to begin in Baltimore City Circuit Court Monday is captioned State of Maryland v. Officer William G. Porter. Neither Freddie Gray nor his family is a party to the action. Gray's family already won their case — or, rather, a $6.4 million judgment to settle a case the family could have brought. Monetary compensation and the effect it may have on future police practices is one very important form of justice, and Gray's family has already accomplished this goal.
Some also hope the officers' trials will advance the agenda of the "black lives matter" movement. But a single prosecution (or six) cannot solve broad social problems or reform troubled institutions. Instead, the question in these and any other criminal trials is narrow: Has the defendant violated a specific law?
More precisely, the question is whether the government has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant engaged in prohibited conduct as charged. A not-guilty verdict does not mean that the defendant behaved properly or that a wrong did not occur, only that the state did not meet its high burden of proof.
We might wish that the trials will reveal the true story of Gray's fateful ride in a police van following his arrest on April 12. But a criminal trial is a notoriously bad way to tell a story. The presentation is fragmented. The narrative is constrained by technical rules of evidence. Those who expect the trials to answer all the questions or to solve all the problems highlighted by Gray's death are bound to be disappointed.
Yet despite all these limitations, the trials will be an important moment in the civic life of Baltimore. Police officers, sometimes perceived as acting with impunity in neighborhoods like West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester, will be called to account in a public proceeding. A jury of citizens (or an independent judge, if any defendant waives his or her right to trial by jury) will assess the officers' conduct, with severe sanctions at the ready. The trials themselves — regardless of the outcomes — are a healthy reaffirmation of the rule of law.
Does justice demand a particular verdict? It does not.
Some officers may be acquitted. Some may be convicted of lesser counts, given the aggressive charging decisions reflected in the indictment. Such outcomes would not mean that justice was not achieved, only that the admissible evidence did not rise to the very high level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to that defendant or that count of the indictment.
To satisfy our sense of justice, these trials must have certain attributes. They must be public proceedings, so that Gray's family and the community as a whole come to understand how a 25-year-old man died in law enforcement custody. There should be competent lawyers on both sides and a fair-minded judge — conditions that have been already met. And the jurors picked for each trial must be free of any bias.
Above all, it is imperative that each defendant be held accountable for his or her own conduct. In other words, justice must be individualized.
Of the many pretrial rulings by Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams, perhaps the most important is that each of the six police officers will receive a separate trial. Judge Williams concluded that if the officers were tried together, evidence against some defendants could unfairly be held against other defendants. Underlying this procedural concern is a fundamental principle: Individuals in our society are to be judged for their own actions, not on their proximity to others who may have engaged in wrongdoing.
The value of individualized justice matters greatly to those of us disturbed by Freddie Gray's death. If the charges against the police officers have merit, Gray himself was denied such justice.
The state's accusations — which have not been proven — are based on the general theory that Gray was the victim of a kind of profiling. Prosecutors will argue that the police officers confronted, chased, arrested and physically mistreated Gray not because of misconduct they observed but because of assumptions they made about him and the neighborhood in which he lived.
If police officers targeted Freddie Gray because of what they assumed about African-American men on the streets of Sandtown-Winchester, that was wrong. And if those same police officers are prosecuted based on what some people think of police officers in general, that would be wrong as well.
Some may find it ironic that officers accused of denying Freddie Gray fair treatment should receive it themselves in the form of separate trials and other procedural accommodations. But our justice system is not designed to give alleged wrongdoers a taste of their own medicine; it is designed to adjudicate and punish misbehavior fairly and dispassionately.
Unfortunately, one-size-fits-all generalizations have infected American criminal justice practices in recent decades. Racial profiling, skewed pretrial detention and plea bargaining practices, and mandatory sentencing laws are based on assumptions about categories of individuals rather than on determinations about individuals. These policies have contributed to a system of mass incarceration that many protesters rightly decry.
For that reason, regardless of the verdicts in these six trials, justice does demand changes to unwise and unfair law enforcement policies, including those that may have contributed to Freddie Gray's death.
Some reforms are on the horizon. The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is working with the Baltimore Police Department to improve the way officers are trained and deployed. Attorney General Brian Frosh has called for law enforcement agencies in Maryland to adopt federal recommendations against racial profiling, and Baltimore has launched a pilot program to outfit police officers with body cameras to strengthen accountability.
Meanwhile a Justice Reinvestment Council commissioned by the Maryland General Assembly is developing recommendations to reduce the state prison population and reinvest the savings in strategies to increase public safety. And bipartisan legislation in Congress would limit the reach of some federal mandatory sentencing laws.
The upcoming trials of the Baltimore police officers are important and should be closely watched. But critical efforts are underway now to address the problems of mass incarceration and to tackle persistent problems in our criminal justice system. We needn't await the conclusion of these trials, or insist on specific verdicts, to begin the process of improving justice on the streets of this great city.
Dean Ronald Weich is quoted in a Politico article about Hillary Clinton’s Oct. 22, 2015, appearance before the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
In “Advice to Hillary Clinton: 5 pitfalls to avoid,” Weich, a former assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice during the first Obama administration, urged Clinton not to speculate and to stick strictly to what is known about the Benghazi episode, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed the night of Sept. 11-12, 2012, when militants attacked and burned the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Clinton was the secretary of state at the time of the attack, which has been the focus of multiple congressional investigations. Clinton critics have said she and the State Department could have done a better job of ensuring security at the U.S. consulate.
“In life, you never know what you don’t know, therefore you need to be careful not to go out on a limb to assert facts that are not rock solid,” Weich told Politico.
Weich also said that Clinton should stand back and let the Democrats on the Benghazi Committee, who are led by Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, defend her stewardship as secretary of state.
“The Democrats on this committee are very, very adept at defending witnesses from unfair attacks,” Weich said. “Ranking Member Cummings and his troops will do their job and protect her. She doesn’t need to be the one to raise points when her allies on the committee are ready to do so.”
Let’s face it – Baltimore has a reputation.
This city is known for many wonderful things: the Inner Harbor, the Orioles and Ravens, world-class arts institutions, historic neighborhoods, authentic dive bars and some of the most exciting universities in the country, including ours. But it is also known for crime, drugs and mean streets.
Recently the rougher aspects of Baltimore’s reputation have predominated. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody, and the unrest that followed, reinforced the impression of Baltimore as the violent city of Homicide and The Wire. For a week in late April, Americans were treated to 24/7 images of a burning drug store, frustrated young people and a curfew enforced by the National Guard. “Baltimore is burning,” CNN intoned.
Those of us who were here know the coverage was overblown. On one tense night – Monday April 27 – anger turned to violence in some neighborhoods. Yet in the days that followed, conflagration was replaced by peaceful demonstrations and constructive dialogue.
Certainly Baltimore faces challenges, including persistent pockets of poverty, a diminished economic base and pervasive distrust of law enforcement in communities of color. So do too many other U.S. cities. But for that week in April, it was Baltimore’s turn to symbolize the problems of urban America on cable TV and talk radio.
What does all this have to do with our law school? Everything. We are proud of who we are: the University of Baltimore. We are not just in the city. We are of the city.
Our school is located in the heart of this great old town. It is an integral part of the city’s past and present and will help shape its future. Our graduates preside in courtrooms, boardrooms and conference rooms across the city. The president of our university is a former three-term mayor of Baltimore. Local lawyers and judges teach UB students the value of expanding access to justice. Our clinics provide legal services to vulnerable populations throughout the city.
In other words, our law school has an opportunity and a responsibility to make Baltimore a better place.
This issue of Baltimore Law magazine explores some of the many ways our law school is woven into the fabric of the city. You’ll read about UB alumni working to expand economic vitality and social justice through their work in the city’s law firms, government offices and nonprofit organizations. You’ll learn about law school graduates making the city beautiful through efforts as varied as art projects and real estate investing.
Freddie Gray’s tragic death and the events that followed have only intensified the importance of our law school’s role. When Attorney General Loretta Lynch came to Baltimore to meet with community leaders, she came to UB. Our professors have been at the forefront of public commentary about legal and social issues in the city. And our alumni, including the two impressive women on our cover, are on both sides of the criminal justice system in Baltimore. We are positioned to help shape changes in law and policy that emerge from this period of ferment.
I am not a native Baltimorean. But in the three years since I became dean of the UB School of Law I’ve come to love Baltimore. I’m fascinated by its rich legal history, its dynamic municipal politics and its vibrant cultural life. I appreciate more than ever the central role our school plays in this extraordinary city.
In an Aug. 20 article in The Crime Report, Dean Ronald Weich refutes an assertion by Princeton professor Naomi Murakawa that former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was among the lawmakers responsible for building “Prison America” by enacting harsh federal sentencing laws.
Murakawa is the author of The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America .
Weich, who served as chief counsel to Kennedy – and, before that, as special counsel to the U.S. Sentencing Commission – takes issue with the subtitle of Murakawa’s book.
“No fair observer of criminal justice policy could conclude that liberals – or conservatives or Democrats or Republicans – bear sole responsibility for the spike in incarceration over the past half century,” Weich wrote. “Rather, these disastrous criminal justice policies were a bipartisan misadventure that reflected the nation’s anger and fear about crime.
Weich noted that every crime bill enacted by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s passed with broad bipartisan majorities and with the support of leaders from both parties. He also noted that the Senate often passed crime bills by unanimous consent.
Weich also says Murakawa’s book fails to take into account the complex, collaborative nature of the legislative process, of which he says Kennedy was a master.
“Yes, [Kennedy] was a lead sponsor of the Sentencing Reform Act, but he did not write the law in a vacuum,” Weich wrote. “The bill’s text is the product of years of negotiations with [Republican Sen. Strom] Thurmond and many other members of the Senate, as well as committee markups and floor debates.”
Continued Weich: “In all of these efforts Kennedy never lost sight of his progressive ideals. But he recognized that in a legislative body whose rules reward consensus, the only way to advance his goals was to negotiate and compromise with influential members on the other side of the aisle.”
Murakawa also does not adequately emphasize the “huge influence” of the Justice Department in shaping the final law, Weich said: “It is no surprise that a bill first introduced during President Jimmy Carter’s administration became more conservative by the time it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.”
In July 2015, Dean Weich was quoted in a Washington Post story about the human toll of the government’s decades-long war on drugs and on the particular damage done by mandatory-minimum sentences.
Reporter Sari Horwitz‘s article — “From a First Arrest to a Life Sentence: Clemency is the only way out for the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving life terms in federal prison” — is the third in a series titled “Unwinding the Drug War.”
Horwitz tells the story of Sharanda Jones, prisoner 33177-077 at the Carswell women’s prison in Fort Worth, Texas. Jones, a first-time, nonviolent offender, was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1999 by a federal judge after she was convicted on a single cocaine offense.
Writes Horwitz: “Jones almost certainly would not receive such a sentence today. Federal sentencing guidelines in similar drug cases have changed, in particular to end disparities in how the courts treat crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine. And, following a 2005 Supreme Court decision, judges have much greater discretion when they mete out punishment. In the past decade, they gave lower sentences by an average of one-third the guideline range, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.”
But the hangover from the years of harsh, mandatory-minimum sentencing continues.
Jones is among about 100,000 federal inmates — about half the total population — doing time for drug offenses. Of them, many thousands are nonviolent offenders serving life without the possibility of parole. Four in five are black, like Sharanda Jones, or Hispanic.
Weich, who served as a special counsel to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the late 1980s, told the Post that mandatory-minimum sentences were about math, not about people.
Said Weich: “These laws forced judges to look at their calculators instead of into the eyes of the defendants they were sentencing. They weren’t allowed to ask, ‘How did they get to this point in their lives?’ and ‘Who were they going to be in five or 20 years?’ ”
The Daily Record, January 8, 2015
In “An open letter to UB Law,” Generation J.D. blogger Alicia Gipe wrote about preparing law students to enter the job market. The dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law has submitted this response:
Thank you for your open letter to the University of Baltimore School of Law, published at TheDailyRecord.com on Dec. 30. I’m delighted you had such a positive experience at UB and that you were impressed by your professors and the supportive learning environment at our school.
The concerns you expressed in your letter about the current job market for new lawyers are very valid. The legal profession is changing in dramatic ways, and lucrative employment for recent law school graduates is no longer the sure thing it once was. At UB, we feel a keen responsibility to prepare students for this brave, new world by focusing on the skills and judgment young lawyers need to succeed today and by offering hands-on legal experience throughout law school.
Practical legal experience has been at the heart of a University of Baltimore School of Law education since the institution was founded as a night school in 1925. While students receive a rigorous grounding in the theory of law, they also learn the nuts and bolts of lawyering from highly skilled professors and seasoned attorneys. Students gain tangible experience through the school’s 10 clinics, 21 moot court teams and various experiential courses. Just last year, we updated the curriculum to ensure that all UB students will engage in actual or simulated law practice before they graduate.
Real-world legal experience begins the summer after the first year of school, when all UB School of Law students are guaranteed the opportunity to work with legal employers through the school’s pioneering Experience in Legal Organizations (EXPLOR) program. Meanwhile, sitting judges and practicing lawyers from across this region participate in the education of our students as teachers, mentors, trial team coaches and eventually as employers.
Because of our focus on practical excellence, UB graduates have a well-deserved reputation for getting the job done. And because of that perception throughout the legal community, UB graduates are more successful in this tough job market than are graduates from many other schools. While 51.5 percent of our 2013 graduates were employed in bar-required jobs nine months after graduation, an additional 27 percent of graduates landed “J.D. advantage” jobs — positions for which bar passage is not required but for which a J.D. degree provides a distinct advantage. That means almost eight out of every 10 UB graduates landed good jobs less than a year out of school, slightly better than the national average.
These “J.D. advantage” jobs do not include working as Starbucks baristas. They are challenging, well-compensated positions in corporations, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and other professional settings. While UB is known for producing top-notch litigators, we are just as proud of our graduates who contribute to society in other ways. A UB School of Law education inculcates problem-solving skills that help graduates forge a wide range of exciting career paths.
Those who want to practice law get a great head start at UB. Our law school ranks among the top schools nationwide for the number of graduates hired as judicial clerks. More than 18 percent of employed 2013 graduates secured these coveted positions — twice the national average. It’s no surprise to me that so many UB School of Law alumni end up as judges, state legislators and state’s attorneys and in other positions of civic leadership.
At the end of your letter, you express optimism that the UB School of Law will continue to rise above the crowd and be a pioneer in order to maximize each graduate’s potential for success. I promise you we will meet that challenge and continue to make you proud to be an alumna of our very special school.
Dean, University of Baltimore School of Law
"Justice in Focus: Crime Bill @ 20" for Vera Institute of Justice:
An interview with Dean Weich was part of a Vera Institute of Justice feature titled "Justice in Focus: Crime Bill @ 20." Dean Weich reflected on his time as counsel to Sen. Edward Kennedy.
"Newsmakers" Interview with Dean Ronald Weich in The Daily Record:
An interview with Dean Weich was featured in an April 17, 2013, front-page story in The Daily Record. (Article is in PDF format.)
Op-ed: "Fixing the filibuster," The Baltimore Sun, March 10, 2013:
The filibuster is back in the news, thanks to Sen. Rand Paul's nearly 13-hour talkathon on U.S. drone policy last week. Putting aside the merits of Mr. Paul's national security views, his feat of endurance was in the best tradition of the Senate. He used his right to unlimited debate on the Senate floor to draw the attention of his fellow citizens to an issue of profound national importance.
Other recent filibusters are less noble. Last month, senators used the rules to delay, for little apparent reason, confirmation of their former colleague Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. And more recently, the Senate minority blocked indefinitely the nomination of a highly qualified woman, Caitlin Halligan, to the D.C. Court of Appeals, the second most important court in the country and one to which the Senate has yet to confirm an Obama nominee.
The fact is, some filibusters are good and some are abusive. The rules should be reformed, but reformers should be careful not to go too far. Happily, the Senate earlier this year passed two resolutions by broad, bipartisan margins that will speed work on widely supported legislation and nominations without gagging the likes of Senator Paul or others inspired by Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Read the entire op-ed.
Letter to the editor: "'Leveling the Wings' of Legal Education," The Daily Record, Feb. 21, 2013:
Note: A version of this letter appeared in the newspaper.
By Ronald Weich
Dean, University of Baltimore School of Law
The Daily Record's February 7 editorial ("Legal Education—Stopping the Graveyard Spiral") likens law schools to distressed airliners. While the comparison is extreme, the current challenges in legal education are real. At the University of Baltimore School of Law, we take these concerns very seriously.
It is certainly true, as every practicing lawyer knows, that the legal profession is changing in ways that have affected the employment prospects of recent law school graduates. Some of those changes may be attributable to the economic downturn in recent years, but others are structural. For example, technology has streamlined activities typically assigned to law firm associates, and new client billing arrangements have altered the economics of law firm hiring. Meanwhile the budgets of many government agencies and non-profit organizations are stretched thin. It is no wonder that would-be law students are wary of entering the profession when lucrative employment upon graduation is no longer a sure thing.
But law schools are still engaged in a fundamentally valid enterprise. Throughout our society, lawyers are needed to help people and institutions resolve disputes, tackle complex problems and advance the quality of life. There are many tasks lawyers perform that only properly trained and licensed lawyers can do, or do well. And in general, over the course of a career, lawyers earn a very good living doing those things. So legal education remains valuable—but it needs to stay relevant to contemporary legal practice.
Read the entire letter.