House OKs bill giving victims a voice in parole hearings Governor expected to sign it into law

April 04, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Critics of the justice system often say that criminals have more rights than victims. Yesterday, the Maryland General Assembly tried to correct that perceived imbalance.

By an overwhelming margin, the House of Delegates gave final legislative approval to a bill that, for the first time, would permit victims or relatives to speak at the parole hearings of assailants. Proponents hailed the bill's passage as a major step for victims' rights in the state.

Sue Mathis, a crime victim from Baltimore County who proposed the bill, said it would allow victims to explain how crimes had affected them and express their fears about an assailant's release.

"I don't think I've quite come down back to earth yet," said an elated Ms. Mathis, whose former husband is serving 30 years for nearly stabbing her to death with a hunting knife in 1986. "It's time the victims are heard."

The House approved the bill 128-7 after a brief debate. The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously last month, is supported by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who is expected to sign it into law.

Victims' rights have been a popular issue in Annapolis in recent years. Responding to growing fears of and frustration with violent crime, legislators have been more willing to include victims in criminal justice proceedings.

In response to stories in The Sun about the Parole Commission's secret operations, the legislature passed a law in 1994 allowing victims to attend hearings involving their assailants.

The same year, legislators overwhelmingly supported an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing crime victims the right to be treated with "dignity, respect and sensitivity." Critics argued that the bill was a vague, "feel-good" measure that did not specifically confer any legal rights.

During yesterday's debate, Del. Clarence Davis made a similar argument against the parole hearing bill. Mr. Davis, a Baltimore Democrat, said the legislature should be spending more time trying to reduce crime rather than on making victims feel better.

He also said that the decision to parole a criminal should be based on whether the prisoner has been sufficiently punished and rehabilitated, not on how a victim feels about it.

"We've gone too far in an effort to fool victims that something is being done against crime, and it's not," Mr. Davis said.

The parole hearing bill grew out of Ms. Mathis' frustration with the way her husband's case was handled. He has asked the state twice to reduce his sentence. Ms. Mathis, who lives in Essex, said she was never told of the requests.

She contacted her state senator, Democrat Michael J. Collins, who put in the bill on her behalf.

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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