Capital Notebook

Capital Notebook

March 23, 2006

OK sought for panel on prison violence

Advocates for prisoners, union officials representing correctional officers and retired officers yesterday urged legislators to approve a bill that would set up a task force to examine the problem of violence in Maryland's prisons.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat, would create a task force to develop strategies for reducing prison violence. It would report to the General Assembly in December.

During a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Jones said Maryland prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous for inmates and staff.

The problem was evident yesterday as authorities investigated what a prison system spokeswoman said were three inmate stabbings in separate incidents at different prisons.

Jones said the need for a study was illustrated by news articles in The Sun last year detailing how the number of murders in Maryland prisons has far exceeded those of states with much larger inmate populations.

"We need to learn more about this dangerous and growing problem to turn these tides around," Jones said.

Michele Lewis of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said records show that serious assaults by inmates on correctional officers have almost doubled over the past two budget years.

"Violence in Maryland prisons is a serious problem, and it is a growing problem," Lewis said.

The task force's members would include legislators, representatives of the prison system and advocates for inmates.

Greg Garland

Ban on funeral protests passes

Alarmed by protesters who hold up signs such as "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" at military funerals, the Maryland House voted yesterday to ban funeral protests that use speech likely to incite a fight.

The bill passed, 132-3, despite concerns from some that it could weaken free speech.

Congress and more than a dozen states are considering similar bills in response to protests by Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose members believe that American soldiers are dying because of the nation's tolerance of gay people.

This month, the Westminster funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was picketed by seven members of the church.

Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat who sponsored the measure, said the only opposition came from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which raised free-speech concerns.

The bill was amended to take out time restrictions, so it reads that a person may not say something to a funeral attendee "likely to incite or produce an imminent breach of the peace" within 300 feet of a funeral or a funeral procession.

Violations would be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.

The civil liberties group agrees that the Westboro church's tactics are "reprehensible, virulently anti-gay and unbelievable to target military families while grieving," said Meredith Curtis, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maryland.

"But it's not the role of the government to decide which kinds of speech we do and do not like. Passing this legislation is unconstitutional and doesn't provide families with any protection," Curtis said.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Westboro church member Shirley Phelps-Roper said the church is considering challenging such laws in court.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is expected to vote on the bill next week, according to James' legislative aide.

A favorable committee vote would send the measure to the Senate floor for discussion.

Staff and wire reports

Unexpected obstacle for bill

An apparent misunderstanding yesterday nearly deflated a Senate bill intended to rile Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his Cabinet appointees.

On Tuesday, senators granted preliminary approval to a bill that would require any second-term governor to get the Senate's blessing for any Cabinet secretaries he wants to carry over - a bill that Republicans call a shameless dig at the governor and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan.

Municipal leaders across the state - many of them Democrats - accuse Flanagan of withholding millions for local road repairs.

To throw a wrench into the bill and to spare Flanagan, Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, offered an amendment that would require reconfirmation only for secretaries with less than a year on the job.

Though no one who favors the legislation would want that amendment, particularly not bill sponsor Senate President T-omas V. Mike Miller, the provision inexplicably passed yesterday, without discussion in a late afternoon session.

Questioned afterward, senators admitted they goofed.

"We will offer a new amendment [today]," promised Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Stoltzfus, meanwhile, said he knew the easy passage was too good to be true.

"I couldn't believe [Miller] capitulated like that," he said, laughing. "We'll go after it again."

Jill Rosen

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