ANNAPOLIS — The county commissioners could gain legal authority to employ prisoners on public service projects, but they might not avoid liability.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Friday, a Baltimore County delegate objected to a provision in the Carroll delegation's bill thatwould grant the county sheriff and the commissioners immunity from liability for any act the prisoners commit while employed on a county project or in the event of an escape.
Republican Del. Richard C. Matthews, the Carroll delegation chairman who serves on the committee, said the panel probably would deletethe provision.
Commissioner President Donald I. Dell and county Sheriff John H. Brown agreed Monday that their offices should be responsible for the actions of inmates employed by the county and that thelegislation should be amended. The bill was drafted by the county Attorney's Office and promoted by the commissioners, not the sheriff.
"Somebody has to be liable," said Dell. "We can't just let them out, then have them walk away and rob somebody else. We'd be liable no matter what's in the bill."
Dell said he trusts the Sheriff's Department to create and supervise a program that minimizes public safety risks.
County Attorney Charles W. Thompson Jr. said that if the amendment is made, the bill still would be acceptable.
"It authorizes us to use inmates, but it doesn't mean we have to," he said. "Whatever plan is devised will have to include all the necessary precautions."
The bill requires the sheriff to set rules for the program, with the commissioners' approval, to ensure public safety.
The bill is intended to save county money and provide inmates with constructive activities for their rehabilitation. Prisoners could have their sentences reduced by up to five days for each month that they perform satisfactorily on a county work project.
The bill allows the commissioners to employ any inmate detained at the detention center. About one-third of the nearly 100 inmates participate in a work-release program, Brown said.
The remaining inmates would be eligible for public projects, the sheriff said. But only inmates convicted of "lesser crimes," such as drunken driving or disorderly conduct, probably wouldqualify.
"I'm not going to let murderers out to do anything," he said. "We're not going to develop a chain gang."
The commissionersnow can employ prisoners only to do jobs along county roads. Dell said he envisions the inmates mowing grass and doing general maintenance work around county buildings and property.
The sheriff can assign inmates tasks "within reason," but he doesn't pay them, said Brown.Inmates recently painted the interior of the jail and sheriff's offices, saving the department about $17,000, Brown said.
Under the proposal, the commissioners could authorize payment to prisoners, basedon normal rates for the job performed. They also could deduct from the wages the costs of providing employment, including training, and the costs of incarceration, which are estimated by state fiscal analysts to be $40 to $50 per day per inmate.