Queen Anne's Co. halts plans to begin chain gang Commissioners first want legality ruling from attorney general

March 27, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

There will be no chain gangs on Queen Anne's County roadsides next month, the County Commission said yesterday. In a one-page statement, the county said it would not use restrained prisoners for work detail until the state attorney general advised commissioners on the legality of the practice.

But that advice may not be forthcoming soon. A spokesman for the attorney general told The Sun yesterday that his office could not issue a ruling without more facts.

"I sent them a letter yesterday, saying we would not be able to do so until the county had decided on the exact details of the program," said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions.

That decision appeared to leave the county in a Catch-22 situation, one considerably complicated by growing opposition to the plan and a change of heart by at least one of the commission's three members.

"In the beginning, it sounded good -- get tough on crime," said George O'Donnell, the commission president who says he no longer supports the plan. "But the devil's been in the details -- the cost-effectiveness of it, the divisiveness of it."

O'Donnell said yesterday the county had not received Schwartz's letter. But he indicated that the commission might re-evaluate the issue in light of the letter.

"I think my fellow commissioners are starting to look at it," he said.

Mike Zimmer, the commissioner who introduced the proposal, said yesterday he remained committed to the plan for chain gangs, but he would listen to better ideas.

When the vote was taken last month to begin use of chain gangs April 1, the commission asked county detention officials to investigate whether chains, electronic stun belts or some other method would be best for inmates working on road crews.

That is still under review by county officials, and no specifics have been decided.

"If the [attorney general's] office needs specifics, we'll just have to sit down and write them up," Zimmer said. "I'm open to any suggestion."

Zimmer said that much of the opposition came from outside the county, and that a poll of county residents conducted by a local newspaper had found strong support for chain gangs.

The third commissioner, Ted Moeller, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

O'Donnell said no new vote had been taken, and a motion by him at Tuesday's meeting to reconsider the proposal had died for lack of a second. He said that he no longer supports the plan because it has proved so divisive in the community, and that it may not be the most effective way to use prison labor.

"There's strong feelings on both sides," O'Donnell said. "I want to try to get a consensus -- I'd rather not just come up with a motion [to change it]. I think it would be more considerate of my fellow commissioners to discuss it."

About 60 people attended a March 18 commission meeting, asking the commissioners to reconsider the matter. Opponents included local black ministers and their congregants, the local president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and former inmates.

Schwartz said he could not anticipate how the attorney general might rule on the matter when more facts are provided. But the central issue, he said, appears to be whether chains or other restraints would violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as spelled out by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Maryland's Constitution has a similar provision, he said.

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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