More youths may go to prison, adults may stay longer

September 26, 1994|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

New tough-on-crime laws that take effect Saturday could double or triple the number of convicts under 18 in Maryland's adult correctional system and require at least one major new prison in the next several years, officials say.

Beginning Oct. 1, youths over 16 who are charged with any of about 20 additional crimes will be treated as adults. Adults convicted of a second violent felony will have to serve at least 10 years in prison, and violent offenders will have to serve at least half their sentences before parole. Legislators also doubled the maximum sentence for burglary to 20 years.

With 20,800 inmates living in quarters designed for 13,361, Maryland already has the country's seventh most crowded prison system, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice report. Even without the new laws, the prison population has been increasing by about 3 percent a year.

The state's Division of Parole and Probation, which expects increased demand for presentence investigations and supervision of juveniles under the new laws, also has one of the highest caseloads per worker in the country.

"The impact may be severe," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Mr. Sipes said he could not accurately estimate how many new prison beds might be required. The charges that prosecutors file and the sentences judges hand down will make that clearer in the next year, he said.

But corrections officials believe the 50-percent-before-parole law alone will require 800 new prison beds in three to 10 years. State fiscal analysts put the annual cost of implementing the parole and mandatory sentencing laws at $26 million.

Advocates for children are concerned about putting more youths into the adult court and prison system.

Juveniles 14 and older already face adult sentencing if convicted of a first-degree murder, rape or sexual offenses. But for juveniles 16 and older, the new law adds to the list crimes such as assault with intent to rape, rob or murder; mayhem or maiming; kidnapping; carjacking and a variety of firearms offenses.

Mr. Sipes said the laws will affect about 2,000 cases involving juveniles within the next year, although the public defender projects the number at about 1,000, based on estimates from Maryland's uniform crime reports.

Slightly more than 100 youths under 18 are housed in state prisons now, Mr. Sipes said, with an additional 375 on probation or parole. "Could the numbers double or triple? Very possibly," he said.

For more than a decade, the Division of Correction has sent boys under 18 who have been sentenced as adults to a transition program at the Maryland Correctional Training Center at Hagerstown. Girls go to a similar program at the women's prison in Jessup.

There, psychologists and social workers introduce them to the rigors of prison life. When the psychologists feel they're ready, the young offenders enter the general prison population unless they qualify for protective custody, Mr. Sipes said. They also attend school in prison.

But outside of the Patuxent Institution -- with a limited program for 350 adults and juveniles -- the prison system does not have the kind of treatment programs that Department of Juvenile Services operates to to help rehabilitate juvenile offenders.

George M. Lipman, an assistant state public defender who testified against the new juvenile law in Annapolis, said it would make hardened criminals out of young offenders who might have been helped in juvenile programs.

He also said that, because police officers are responsible for filing initial charges, a teen-ager could languish in adult jail for a month before authorities realized his case did not fit the new law.

"They're making a decision right on the street. That kid is in jail already before the [prosecutor] has a chance of even looking at the paperwork," Mr. Lipman said. "You're just throwing him into the adult system and then seeing what happens. . . . I think a lot of kids are just going to fall straight through the cracks."

Mr. Lipman also argued that judges are more likely to give younger offenders probation in adult court. That, he said, results in less supervision than even a brief commitment to a juvenile institution.

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Thomas Ward disagreed, saying he keeps a careful eye on juveniles who end up in his court.

In the juvenile system, he said, "They can get no punishment for stolen car after stolen car -- and then they're before me for first-degree murder."

Said city Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe: "They're shooting each other in schools. They're committing murder. I can't very well regard them as babies and infants who need rehabilitation." Still, she acknowledged, the law is "just sort of shifting the weight without addressing the problem."

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