Senate approves crackdown on violent criminals

March 25, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

A bill aimed at cracking down on violent criminals was unanimously approved by the Maryland Senate yesterday.

Under the measure, violent offenders would have to serve at least half of their prison sentences before parole, rather than the current one-fourth. And a third conviction for a violent crime could bring a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Other provisions would open up secret parole hearings and require the Maryland Parole Commission to deal more harshly with former inmates who are arrested while on parole.

The measure now goes to the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., said he likes the idea of making violent offenders serve at least half of their time. But he said his committee may modify or reject other parts of the bill.

"The House will be passing out some version . . . but it won't go as far as that bill," said Mr. Vallario, a defense attorney from Prince George's County.

Changing the law to require violent offenders to serve at least half of their sentences would affect about 500 of Maryland's 20,000 prisoners, state officials estimate.

Those inmates would have to serve another 18 months on average, at an annual cost of $12.5 million, according to budget analysts. The state also would have to spend another $52.5 million on new prison beds.

Mr. Vallario said that though he is inclined to look favorably on that provision, he doesn't particularly like the "three-time loser" proposal.

President Clinton supports similar legislation on the federal level. Mr. Vallario, however, said Maryland's current laws for repeat violent offenders are tough enough. Other parts of the bill are designed to restrict the Parole Commission's power and make it more accountable to the public. Commissioners, for example, would have to reincarcerate people who are arrested for violent crimes while on parole.

That provision was in response to a case reported last year by The Sun, in which an armed robber free on parole was arrested again for armed robbery -- and allowed to return to the streets on bail.

Within days of his release, the parolee, Theodore R. Bundley Jr., tried to rob a gas station in Catonsville. He triggered a gunfight that left him and the station's owner, Daniel L. Heiser, dead.

The Senate bill also would open parole hearings to victims, reporters and the public in most circumstances. The commission nows works in secret and, critics say, without public accountability.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, a supporter of the bill, said he believes commissioners will make better decisions if they are subject to public review. Mr. Vallario, however, said he is not convinced that all hearings should be open and that anyone besides the victim or the victim's family should be allowed to attend.

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