Robinson joins foes of parole

January 28, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer Staff writer William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

Maryland's top public safety official said yesterday he supports abolishing parole for violent criminals if the state can come up with the money to do it.

But the official, Bishop L. Robinson, cautioned that curtailing parole will not make a significant dent in crime unless the state also tries to prevent youngsters from becoming criminals.

Money must be targeted to programs that help poor and troubled children stay in school and out of trouble, he said.

Mr. Robinson spoke yesterday to a House Appropriations subcommittee in Annapolis and elaborated on his views in an interview afterward.

The public safety secretary told legislators that abolishing parole for violent criminals would be costly. The state eventually would have to spend $392 million to build three prisons for 5,000 more inmates, he said.

Legislative analysts say the state would have to spend more than $60 million a year to run the new prisons.

The state budget now before the legislature does not include funds to do any of that.

Mr. Robinson, however, gave the subcommittee a plan for spreading out the construction costs over the next 15 years. If taxpayers understand they do not have to pay for the prisons all at once, he said, "it probably would be acceptable to them. We have to find out if the public is sincere about its outcry to keep people who commit violent offenses in prison longer."

His comments yesterday seemed to represent a change in his views. As recently as a month ago, he reacted cooly to the idea of abolishing parole for violent criminals. Then, he said such a move would merely delay the inmates' "inevitable" return to crime once released.

Mr. Robinson's boss, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, does not want to end parole completely for all violent offenders, although he could support it for murderers, said his spokeswoman, Page W. Boinest.

Besides being relatively inexpensive, the possibility of being paroled serves as an incentive for inmates to behave and try to improve themselves, she said.

Mr. Robinson stopped short of endorsing any of the nearly 20 bills in the legislature this year dealing with parole and probation.

But the bill that appears to be closest to his ideas has been introduced by Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Republican from Baltimore County, as part of her get-tough-against-crime gubernatorial bid.

Delegate Sauerbrey's proposal would eliminate parole for people convicted of violent crimes and require them to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

Another would-be governor, Democratic Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore, wants to eliminate parole for people convicted a second time for a violent offense.

Mrs. Sauerbrey acknowledged it would cost several hundred million dollars to build and run the prisons needed to hold the violent offenders.

But taxpayers are already paying "phenomenal amounts" for other projects that have little benefit, she said.

"We need to look at the cost to society -- the economic losses and human suffering -- when an offender is on the street for a year," she said, quoting statistics from the National Institute of Justice that say such a criminal costs the state about $450,000 for that year.

By comparison, she said, "It costs maybe $20,000 to keep that person in jail -- if it's built."

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