Barrier to parole bills removed

December 21, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

In a surprising move, the state's public safety chief said yesterday that he will not fight legislation to open parole hearings to victims and reporters.

Bishop L. Robinson said he could open up to 1,500 hearings to a limited number of observers starting next summer, at a maximum cost of $270,000. Meeting with members of The Sun editorial board, Mr. Robinson outlined his views on proposals to reform the now-secretive parole system.

Several lawmakers say they plan to introduce various bills in the next General Assembly that would open parole hearings, abolish parole for some or all prisoners, and require the Parole Commission to use guidelines when deciding whether to punish parole violators. The session opens Jan. 12.

Some of the proposals were prompted by a Sun story about the commission's secrecy and handling of two cases.

Mr. Robinson said he believes a call to abolish parole for violent offenders would be costly and merely delay, rather than prevent, their "inevitable" return to crime.

In a policy reversal, Mr. Robinson said he would not oppose efforts to open the hearings at which the Maryland Parole Commission reviews prisoners for parole.

"We have no problem with open parole hearings" as long as logistical and monetary questions are addressed, Mr. Robinson announced.

Victims' rights advocate Roberta Roper applauded what she called Mr. Robinson's "surprising move."

"We have attempted to open parole hearings several times in the past and have failed -- largely because of opposition from the Department of Correction [officials] who felt it was a cost and a security problem for them," said Mrs. Roper, who directs the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation in Upper Marlboro. The victims' rights group was named for her daughter, who was murdered in 1982.

Parole hearings are open in about half the states. To do so in Maryland, Mr. Robinson said, officials would have to settle logistical issues as well as determine whether victims should participate. He estimated that 5 percent to 10 percent of crime victims would ask to attend parole hearings.

It would cost $250,000 to $270,000 -- mostly for staff -- to open 1,500, or 10 percent of the roughly 15,000 hearings a year, said department spokesman Leonard Sipes Jr.

Mr. Robinson said hearings would continue to be held in prisons across the state, and victims and reporters would be allowed to attend as space permits. In years to come, the state could hold parole hearings through video links between inmates in one location and observers elsewhere, he said.

Mr. Robinson's term ends in 13 months, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer leaves office.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Baltimore County delegate, recently said she wants to abolish parole for violent offenders.

In order to do that, the state would have to add another 1,000 to 1,500 prison beds -- at a cost of millions, Mr. Robinson suggested. "And that would not relieve the overcrowding that already exists in the system."

Delegate Sauerbrey said the state could find the money by cutting other programs and putting a greater number of nonviolent criminals in home detention, which is less costly than prison. "The public feels they have a right to know when the sentence is given, what that sentence means," she said.

But Mr. Robinson said keeping violent offenders in prison longer merely delays the inevitable -- the crimes they most likely will commit upon release.

"So we simply delay the commission of a new crime over a short period of time," he said. "If the public wants to do that, then that's a short-term fix. We abolish it [parole], we keep people in longer and therefore they're unable to commit crimes earlier -- but they will do so later."

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