Bill to detain criminals longer provokes clash STATE HOUSE REPORT

January 26, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

Should Maryland taxpayers spend millions more every year to keep violent criminals behind bars longer?

At a state Senate hearing in Annapolis yesterday, several friends, relatives and attorneys of convicts said "no." Spend the money on preventing crime and helping prisoners better themselves instead, they said.

But several senators -- including a fiscal conservative -- were of a different mind. They said money spent to keep criminals off the streets is money well spent.

"I'm a conservative. I'm against spending money, but I think we're rich enough to keep these people in prison," said Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., an 80-year-old Democrat from the Eastern Shore.

At issue were two bills that, supporters say, reflect Marylanders' frustration with a system that releases prisoners early on parole and stands by while they commit more crimes.

Legislation by Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, would require people convicted of violent crimes to serve at least half of their prison sentences before becoming eligible for parole. They currently can be released after serving one-fourth of their time.

The bill also would increase by five years the amount of time lifers and first-degree murderers must serve before parole -- to 20 years and 30 years respectively.

A separate measure by Sen. Beatrice P. Tignor, a Democrat from Prince George's County, would prevent people who commit crimes on parole from getting another shot at an early release. "If you're committing another crime while you're on parole, then you do the time," Ms. Tignor said.

Federal statistics show that 40 percent of the inmates in state prisons committed their crime while on parole or probation for another crime, Senator Bromwell said.

"The chances of rehabilitating the violent criminal are slim. The only thing we can be sure of is that as long as he is imprisoned he cannot commit crime," he said in prepared testimony.

He acknowledged that it would be costly -- $12.5 million more a year, according to legislative estimates -- to keep criminals in prison longer under his proposal. But he contended that society pays a higher price as a result of crime.

To cut costs, Mr. Bromwell said, the courts could sentence more non-violent offenders to home detention and boot camps, freeing up space for the violent ones.

Some opponents of his bill argued the millions would be better spent on programs to prevent crime and help prisoners readjust to society.

Requiring inmates to serve more time would reduce their incentive to behave themselves, said Nancy Moran of the Prisoners Aid Association of Maryland. "If you take out parole . . . the guy would have a lot less to lose if he stuck a knife in someone," she said.

Assistant State Public Defender George Lipman also testified that such legislation would restrict the power of parole commissioners to release inmates they have judged to be worthy.

Senator Tignor's bill specifically would prevent commissioners from paroling inmates who already have been paroled once before.

Legislative analysts estimate the change would cost Maryland an extra $47 million a year.

Ms. Tignor defended the cost. "The same people are committing the same crimes over and over, so it may be a good investment of the dollars," she said. But the high price tag helped to doom a similar bill in the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee this week.

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