Outcry to halt parole may mask doubtful premise

February 27, 1994|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

It sounds simple when the opponents of parole offer their emotionally charged reasons:

* A 47-year-old father of two was shot to death in November 1992 when a parolee held up a Catonsville service station.

* A 76-year-old woman was beaten, robbed and sexually assaulted twice at her Glen Burnie home in November 1991 by a parolee who repeatedly broke into her home.

* A 57-year-old real estate agent was raped, bludgeoned to death and stuffed in a closet Dec. 21 at a home she was showing in West Baltimore. A parolee has been charged.

The cases cited are compelling, and the issue seems clear-cut, but the question of keeping inmates behind bars longer by eliminating parole for some 700 violent criminals each year in Maryland is anything but simple.

Under pressure from an angry and frightened public in this election year, the General Assembly is considering ways to modify the state's early-release policies for inmates. The legislature's decisions have enormous fiscal and public policy consequences, entailing a choice between spending millions of dollars for more prisons and investing in social and education programs intended to curb violence.

Complicating the issue is that evidence of parolees being responsible for repeated violent crimes appears inconclusive, as does the argument that keeping inmates in prison longer will slow the rising violence.

"It's a very difficult public policy problem, and it's made more difficult by the politics of it," said Frank M. Dunbaugh III of the Maryland Committee for Responsible Corrections Policy, a private prisoner advocacy group. He is critical of many of the no-parole measures being weighed in Annapolis.

"The politicians' only purpose is to make it look like they're doing something about crime," said Mr. Dunbaugh, an Annapolis attorney and proponent of prison reform. "They do it because they think that's what the public wants done, but the public doesn't want more prisons; what the public wants is to reduce crime and violence."

Proponents of no-parole policies say the way to reduce crime is ** to lock inmates up longer.

"The same people are doing the violent crimes over and over again," Bonnie Reville, a Timonium saleswoman, testified before the House Judiciary Committee recently. "And they keep being released over and over again.

"Listen to what people are telling you," she said. "I'm tired of living in fear."

More than a dozen proposals for eliminating parole are pending before the General Assembly, and all of them would cost taxpayers.

Building a prison costs roughly $70,000 a bed, and housing an inmate costs about $20,000 a year -- about the cost for a year at some colleges.

The most extreme no-parole proposal would eliminate parole and "good-time" credits, which reduce the amount of time an inmate spends behind bars.

That plan would double the state's inmate population to 40,000 in the next 13 years, cost $1.5 billion in construction of prisons and nearly double the Division of Correction's current $341.4 million operating budget. That increased budget would be more than the state spends annually on the 11-campus University of Maryland system.

The expense of such plans is a concern to many legislators in light of the state's budget-slashing in the past three years, but money is not an issue for proponents of eliminating parole.

"I was appalled when I heard of this committee's concern about the cost" of eliminating parole, Anne F. McCloskey of the Maryland Coalition Against Crime told the Judiciary Committee. "I have seen the state of Maryland spend money as if it was a bottomless pit."

The cost to the victims of violent crime and their families, and to society as a whole, is incalculable, said Mrs. McCloskey, whose brother was killed by a parolee during a 1981 robbery in Woodlawn.

More prisoners, more crime

Maryland already has done much to get tough on crime: More criminals are serving more time behind bars than ever before.

Since William Donald Schaefer became governor in 1987, the state has added 10,500 prison beds.

In the past seven years, the number of inmates has jumped 59 percent, from 12,700 when Mr. Schaefer took office to 20,200 this year, forcing the state to spend $300 million for new state prisons and $200 million more for local jails, according to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Meanwhile, from 1987 to 1992, the rate of violent crime in Maryland rose 30.3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Uniform Crime Reports.

"In 1987, if you asked the average citizen, 'Should we build

10,500 new prison beds?' and asked would that have any affect on their safety, the answer probably would have been yes," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state public safety agency.

"But if you went back to the same citizens in 1993 and asked, 'Do you feel any safer?' the answer in all probability would be no," Mr. Sipes said.

Now, the public and elected officials are focusing on keeping inmates in prison longer.

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