Miller blocks sentence proposal

Townsend-backed bill would limit authority of judges to cut terms

March 28, 2002|By David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig | David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has blocked a vote on a bill that would limit the ability of Maryland judges to reduce criminal sentences long after they are imposed, dooming a favored cause of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"I don't like the bill. I don't like the issue. I don't like people telling judges how to judge," Miller said yesterday, explaining why he has refused to let the Senate vote on a measure approved by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on March 18.

Miller's decision appears to violate an internal Senate rule that states bills must be voted within three days of committee action.

Townsend has made sentence reconsideration one of her four priorities of the legislative session, saying a change is needed to restore flagging public confidence in the judicial system. She has testified in committees when the matter has been discussed.

In Maryland, unlike other states, judges can review and lower the prison term of a convict at any time - even years after the sentence was imposed. Judges say they need the authority as an incentive for inmates to reform or a bargaining tool to compel testimony in other cases.

But critics say the reconsideration process is harmful to victims and their families, robbing them of finality and opening old wounds.

"I've been fighting for victims for a long time," Townsend said last month in an appearance before the Senate committee. "Citizens have raised concerns about lack of truth in sentencing."

More complicated than the bill, however, are the politics swirling around it.

Miller is a strong backer of Townsend's gubernatorial candidacy. But he said yesterday that her position on the sentencing legislation is "not my chief concern."

"I endorsed her," he said. "The lieutenant governor or any member of the Senate and House of Delegates can be in love with a bad bill. She and I have agreed to disagree on this issue."

Another wrinkle is that the bill approved by the Senate committee was sponsored by Republicans, led by Sen. Larry E. Haines of Carroll County.

The committee approved Haines' bill instead of a similar measure sponsored by Democratic Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. of Montgomery County, whom Miller is supporting in a congressional bid. Many also mention Van Hollen as a potential Townsend running mate in the fall gubernatorial election.

"Obviously, they're not to eager to pass a Republican bill," Haines said.

With legal challenges to the state's new legislative and congressional redistricting maps in the works, lawmakers say Miller is being especially careful not to anger Maryland's top judges, who oppose the bill.

A House version of the judicial reconsideration bill has received a vote in the Judiciary Committee, but its chances there are slim. Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. opposes it, and his committee has rejected such proposals the past two years.

If the House measure reaches the Senate, Miller said, he would try to get it referred to summer study - often a gentle way of killing legislation.

Passage of the judicial reconsideration bill would have enabled Townsend to hit the post-session campaign trail on a raft of legislative victories. The issue has gained prominence in the past year, largely because of articles on the subject in The Washington Post.

Townsend said yesterday that she wasn't very disappointed, noting that two of her other priorities - tougher drunken driving penalties and expanded access to courts for victims of domestic violence - appear to be succeeding this session after years of pushing.

"So I think this is a process. We've come further than we ever have," she said. "And the summer study will help keep this issue alive for next year."

Asked if she worried the bill might not get that far, she replied, "Senator Miller told me he'd make it happen."

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