Panel tightens parole law for violent criminals

March 29, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

The House Judiciary Committee approved yesterday an anti-crime bill that would require Maryland's Parole Commission and prosecutors to deal more harshly with violent criminals.

Violent offenders would have to serve at least 50 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole, rather than the current one-fourth. Violent crimes include murder, rape, arson, kidnapping and robbery.

The bill resembles one passed by the Senate last week in its parole reforms, but the measures differ in their approach to the sentencing of violent career criminals.

The Senate sought to require "three-time losers" to serve life without parole, but the House committee focused on enforcing current sentencing laws for repeat violent offenders.

State law currently provides for a no-parole sentence of 25 years on a third conviction for a violent crime and life imprisonment on ++ a fourth conviction. But prosecutors have discretion on whether to pursue a conviction leading to those sentences.

The delegates voted to remove that discretion.

Several delegates, including John W. Douglass, contend that prosecutors often ignore those laws in exchange for a guilty plea and the promise of some prison time.

More than 1,600 eligible offenders have avoided sentencing under three- and four-time loser laws since 1978, according to research by Mr. Douglass, a Baltimore Democrat.

"Many of our state prosecutors are not following the intent of our repeat offender law," he said last week. "I am convinced that in a number of cases, many prosecutors are using the law as a plea bargaining tool to get defendants to plead guilty to lesser offenses and thus to clear their dockets."

L But plea bargaining serves important functions, others said.

Police and prosecutors sometimes bargain with offenders to get them to testify against bigger crime bosses, as well as to garner convictions the state might not otherwise obtain, Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson has said.

William M. Katcef, who represents the state prosecutors association, said he could not comment until he had seen the revised bill.

If the House bill passes, negotiators from the House and Senate eventually will try to resolve the differences.

One difference is that the House measure would allow people sentenced under the loser laws to be paroled once they reach age 65. "We don't want prison institutions becoming geriatric wards," said Del. Gilbert J. Genn, D-Montgomery.

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