No money to enforce crime plan

May 27, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Marina Sarris contributed to this article

An ambivalent Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed yesterday a law that will keep violent criminals in prison longer, though the state has yet to allocate any money to pay its multimillion dollar price tag.

The legislation -- written by lawmakers responding to public fear of crime in an election year -- requires a minimum, mandatory 10-year sentence for anyone convicted of a second violent crime.

It also requires violent offenders to serve at least 50 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole. Officials have said about 500 of Maryland's 20,000 inmates will remain in prison longer as a result.

And, in an attempt to make Maryland parole commissioners more accountable for their decisions, it forces them to open parole hearings if requested by a victim. That provision was inspired by articles in The Sun last year that showed shortcomings in the current parole system.

Together, the changes are expected to force the state to spend an additional $29 million a year to run state prisons and an additional $92 million to build a prison by 1998.

The governor, who has emphasized job training and other rehabilitation programs for criminals in the past, expressed mixed feelings in signing the bill yesterday.

"If we keep going down the path [of] mandatory sentences, put everybody in jail, spend no money on early prevention, then you sign bills like this," Mr. Schaefer said. "Mandatory sentences sound good and [are] good for election years."

The sentencing bill was among some 300 he signed yesterday. Wielding his pen like an ax, he vetoed 41 other bills -- including his own welfare reform measure, which lawmakers significantly weakened.

Also among the casualties were a controversial bill that would have made English the official language of Maryland and another that would have forced health officials to expand a screening program to identify children with lead poisoning.

Coming at the end of a four-year legislative term, Mr. Schaefer's vetoes are final and cannot be overturned. The Maryland Constitution precludes incoming lawmakers from overriding vetoes of bills passed by the previous legislature.

The governor's veto list ran unusually long this year, containing at least twice as many bills as in recent sessions, said his press secretary, Page W. Boinest. Mr. Schaefer said he vetoed some of the bills because, like the crime bill, they were election-year measures that lawmakers passed without money to fund them.

Mr. Schaefer opened his final bill signing ceremony by celebrating his biggest victory of the 1994 legislative session -- a ban on 18 types of semiautomatic pistols. Flanked by former presidential press secretary and gun control advocate Jim Brady and his wife, Sarah, the governor praised the legislature for giving him the ban he has sought since 1991.

Mr. Schaefer then turned to his vetoes.

The welfare measure had been among the governor's top priorities during the session. In the waning hours, though, lawmakers stripped out the bill's cornerstone -- a so-called family cap that would have denied additional payments to women statewide who bear more children while on welfare rolls.

Although weakened, the bill still included a pilot program to reduce and eventually eliminate payments to some recipients who failed to find a job or perform community service after 18 months on the welfare rolls.

That wasn't enough for the governor. In a veto letter, Mr. Schaefer said he rejected the bill because -- without the family cap -- it "is an unbalanced and expensive program that sends the wrong message to welfare recipients."

Mr. Schaefer has said, however, he will continue to seek federal approval to impose the family cap.

The governor vetoed a bill that would have required the state to go into high-risk neighborhoods to look for children with lead poisoning and track their progress. Mr. Schaefer said the measure would have put too great a burden on the state.

Local health departments now follow about 4,000 children statewide -- most of them in Baltimore -- after tests detect certain levels oflead in their blood. The vetoed bill would have set a lower level, which could have doubled the workload, according to administration officials.

Mr. Schaefer vetoed the English language bill that proponents described as symbolic and harmless but some immigrants and minorities saw as a potential threat. "It's a divisive bill," he said. "We don't need that type of bill right now."

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