Tougher penalty for road deaths Two important pieces of...

SATURDAY MAILBOX

March 18, 2000

Tougher penalty for road deaths

Two important pieces of legislation have been introduced in the General Assembly this year, Senate Bill 430 and House Bill 417, both entitled "Homicide by Aggressive Driving." ("Bill targets reckless drivers," Feb. 29).

Despite what has been reported in the broadcast media, these are not "road rage" bills. They address a much more common problem on our highways: The reckless and aggressive driver whose behavior leads to a fatality.

Currently in Maryland, a wide gap exists in punishment alternatives in such cases.

On one end is a charge of vehicular manslaughter. On the other are traffic citations which result in small fines and a few points on one's driving record. There is no middle ground.

Unfortunately, over the years, case law has made the criteria for a conviction on vehicular manslaughter so tough that in the vast majority of cases state's attorneys decline to even file the charge because of the risk of failure.

The alternative is to issue citations for traffic violations; the driver then walks away unscathed, with no acknowledgement that a death occurred because of his or her behavior.

This leaves a victim's family hurt and frustrated as they try to cope with their loss -- and with the reality that there is no justice available under Maryland's laws.

The Homicide by Aggressive Driving bills seek to fill this void, by giving prosecutors the ability to bring this charge in cases where a driver has violated two or more traffic laws in an incident that results in a fatality.

The bill sets a penalty at up to three years imprisonment or a $5,000 fine -- or both.

This charge could be used in cases that don't rise to the extreme circumstances that are necessary to sustain a charge of vehicular manslaughter.

To allow this void in our laws to continue is unconscionable.

Linda P. Plack Baltimore

Opening minds with sensitive review

Just as the author of the recent letter "Anthology of lesbian life didn't merit Sun's praise"(March 11) was "appalled to read David Zurawik's eloquently written article" [reviewing an HBO documentary on lesbians' lives], I was appalled to read his letter.

Lesbians exist, just as Native Americans, star athletes and burger-flippers exist. And these labels reflect only part of the person to which they are attached.

It is The Sun's prerogative to cover what is on our airwaves and David Zurawik was right to review this presentation.

A newspaper should offer readers opportunities to expand our small and sometimes narrow existences.

Mr. Zurawik was also right to praise "If These Walls Could Talk 2."

It did not simply, as some might expect, show lesbians as victims of prejudice or as the pornographic sexpots of male heterosexual fantasies; it tackled much more subtle issues such as basic dignities denied to a life-partner after a lover dies, fear and prejudice within the lesbian community and the joy and frustrations of creating a family.

Bravo to HBO, bravo to Mr. Zurawik and to The Sun.

Unfortunately the walls behind which some lesbians have lived can't talk -- so the writer of that letter would have had to turn on his television to hear what might have helped open his mind.

We live in a big world with lots of people.

It sure would be nice if more of us tried to understand, respect and love as many as possible.

Colleen M. Webster Havre de Grace

Social work deserves better pay

The Sun's article "Social workers demand reduced caseloads" (March 3) raises the issue of over-burdened social workers and the requirement that their caseloads be brought in line with the Child Welfare League of America's recommendations.

Such recommendations are meant to provide better service to the neediest.

At the same time caseloads are being reconsidered, salaries should be too.

The Sun has focused on the low salaries of school teachers. In Baltimore, starting pay for teachers with 30-credit master's degrees plus 30 credit hours is $31,607 (with summers off).

Recent graduates from the University of Maryland School of Social Work master's program, the only program in Maryland granting a master's degree is social work (MSW), earn an average of $31,812.

The Maryland Department of Human Resources starts MSW graduates at $30,246, with two weeks vacation. Some of our recent graduates who work for nonprofit agencies earn as little as $25,000.

Graduates of the Maryland program are not novices to the world of work.

Their average age is 32 and they were often employed in human service positions prior to earning their master's.

Nor are they ill-prepared to deal with the complex situations they face.

They have had a minimum of 630 hours of classroom instruction and 1,200 hours of demanding internship training.

They usually also must pass a national licensing exam before they begin employment.

Considering the importance of their work, social workers should not only have manageable caseloads, but higher salaries.

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