Bill gives burglars a break

April 27, 1994|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writer

The James Lamont Coopers of the world can thank the General Assembly for inadvertently making it a little easier on career criminals who specialize in burglary and daytime housebreaking.

Cooper, 33, of Mount Washington has been convicted of burglary and daytime housebreaking at least six times since 1982. Baltimore County prosecutors are trying to send him to prison for 25 years without parole as a so-called three-time loser.

But under a bill passed by the General Assembly and awaiting the governor's signature, such defendants no longer would be considered repeat offenders.

That's because the legislature has removed burglary and daytime housebreaking from the list of so-called crimes of violence that carry mandatory, no-parole sentences for repeat offenders.

Cooper, however, may not reap the benefits of the bill. The new law would take effect Oct. 1, and he is scheduled to be sentenced May 16.

But prosecutors worry that the new law would make it tougher to go after future repeat offenders and might encourage inmates already serving mandatory sentences to file appeals asking for new trials.

Ironically, the change came as the General Assembly approved an election-year crime bill that requires mandatory, no-parole sentences for defendants convicted of two violent crimes, instead of the three under current law.

According to aides, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is worried that the crime bill might add costs by creating a need for more prisons. But the change eliminating burglary as a crime of violence may blunt the effect of the two-time loser bill.

In Baltimore County, which has pursued repeat offenders aggressively, prosecutors are puzzled by the change that would make burglary a less-serious crime.

"I can't believe that that's what the people this year wanted," said Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst.

Since 1983, Baltimore County prosecutors have obtained 189 mandatory, no-parole sentences for three- and four-time losers. Had burglary and daytime housebreaking not been considered violent crimes during that time, Ms. Brobst said, 139 of those defendants could not have been prosecuted as repeat offenders.

"That's about 75 percent of our cases," she said. "They've gutted a law that was working very well out here."

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill, said the change in wording was part of a revision of Maryland's burglary statute.

"Housebreaking itself is not necessarily a crime against a person, like rape, robbery or murder. That was the reason" for the change, the Prince George's County Democrat said.

Sen. Walter Baker, the Cecil County Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wasn't aware that the change could dramatically affect repeat offender cases.

"That's what happens when you do such a comprehensive job to revise the code," he said. "There are going to be mistakes."

He said that if the State's Attorney's Association asks that the burglary language be restored next year, he would push for its passage. "That's why we [the General Assembly] meet every year," he said. "That's why we are a citizens' legislature. We're not supposed to get everything right the first time."

Ms. Brobst said that if the governor does sign the burglary bill, the Baltimore County state's attorney's office would ask the General Assembly to change it back next year.

Joseph L. Harrison, deputy press secretary to the governor, said the crime bill would require $185 million for construction of least two prisons and $50 million a year in operating costs.

Besides the two-time loser provision, the measure requires serious offenders to serve at least 50 percent of their sentences before eligibility for parole and opens up parole commission hearings to the public.

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