Doubts greet jail time proposal Legislators wary of governor's plan for 'truth in sentencing'

February 02, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

The governor's efforts to require greater "truth in sentencing" drew a skeptical reception yesterday from legislators who are concerned such a measure could handcuff judges, worsen prison crowding and give inmates less incentive to behave.

But all sides seemed to agree on at least one point: When a criminal receives a 10-year sentence, that should mean he can expect a decade in prison -- not three years and then be paroled, as often happens today.

"What we have heard from people across the state is disappointment in the criminal system and the sentencing system," Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in Annapolis.

"Victims think criminals are sentenced to a certain number of years and then find they get out much earlier," she said.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has proposed creating a 33-member commission to study the state's sentencing system and recommend reforms by year's end.

In addition to making sentencing truthful and restricting a prisoner's opportunity for parole, the measure seeks to correct regional disparities in sentencing and ensure punishments fit the crime.

Mrs. Townsend, who oversees criminal justice issues for the administration, said reforms are needed to bring credibility and restore public confidence in the criminal justice system.

"This is not the final solution to crime, but we need effective punishment," she said.

Senators, however, worried that the proposal runs counter to the administration's decision not to invest more money in prisons. For the first time in a decade, the governor has proposed no new prison construction this year.

"You don't even have planning money [in the budget]," committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, complained during the two-hour hearing. "I don't see how this won't be capacity-driven."

Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the opening of the 1,300-bed Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland later this year will greatly help capacity.

The prison could grow by 384 beds with an additional housing unit that could be constructed in 14 months, he said.

More importantly, he said, the number of criminals entering state prison has slowed as more nonviolent offenders are diverted into alternative punishments such as boot camp and home detention.

There is a "window of opportunity" to examine sentencing policy before future construction must be planned, Mr. Robinson said.

"We are taking a moment to determine what we need to do," Mrs. Townsend said. "We want to plan. We want to think."

Lawmakers also questioned whether standardizing sentencing might remove judicial discretion as federal sentencing guidelines have done. Some fretted that eliminating parole and "good time" credits would make it difficult for guards to manage inmates.

"None of you should want what we wrought on the federal system," warned M. Albert Figinski, a Baltimore criminal defense attorney and former judge. "That is sentencing by slide rule."

Supporters said they won't emulate the federal system, and that they would keep some mechanism to allow inmates to earn early release through good behavior.

The governor's proposal has support from victim's rights advocates, prosecutors and police.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.