ANNAPOLIS – With the touchy issue of tighter gun control off the table until at least 1996, state lawmakers didn’t have much to croon about with respect to crime legislation as the General Assembly came to a close. But nobody could find much to complain about, either.
“It was kind of a quiet crime year,” said Del. James M. Harkins, R-Harford, a veteran member of the House Judiciary Committee. “The Governor’s death penalty bills were probably the most significant.”
That new law will streamline the appeals process for prisoners sentenced to death. It was the most talked-about piece of crime legislation, but most said its passage was more political than substantial.
“It’ll speed up the process,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s. “But the difference … is negligible as far as I’m concerned.”
The number of appeals available to prisoners sentenced to death was reduced from two to one, and the time allotted to prepare the appeal was slightly shortened.
“Maybe we can continue to tighten it in the future,” said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, a staunch proponent of the death penalty.
Democrats pointed to bills designed to make communities safer, especially for children. The governor is reviewing a bill that would require sex offenders to file their names with local police. And under a measure already signed into law, as of October 1, juvenile offenders will face swifter and more serious punishments.
“The legislature responded positively” to juvenile crime measures, said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who focused on the issue this year.
Another new law could offer more protection for abused spouses by requiring police to arrest anyone violating a protection order. The law also increases the maximum jail sentence for such violations from 60 to 90 days and gives police discretion not to arrest a spouse who strikes out in self- defense. Protection orders are issued by the courts when a couple has a history of violence.
But a low-profile law making it much easier to get a felony conviction for car theft will have the biggest impact on crime in Maryland, some predicted. Combined with a public-awareness campaign modeled after a Michigan program that has saved that state millions in insurance costs, the new law will have a positive, if quiet, effect, lawmakers said.
“Quite candidly, that’s going to do more than anything else,” said Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery.
Dembrow said that while crimes like murder, rape, assault and robbery are declining relative to Maryland’s population, the number of car thefts has surged.
“You park your car, get out and you are thinking, `God I hope my car is here and okay when I get back.’ That’s wrong,” Dembrow said.
According to state statistics, the 33,926 reported car thefts in 1993 were more than double the number of ten years ago.
Shortly before the gavel dropped at midnight Monday, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, said that other success may indirectly fight crime in the state.
“Get people educated, get them jobs and get them off welfare, that’s how you prevent crime,” Taylor said, echoing a message the governor delivered at the outset of the 90-day session.
Waiting in the wings Monday night was an upbeat Parris N. Glendening, whose capital budget included $48 million toward a new jail in Western Maryland – a response to calls from conservatives to enable judges to hand out tougher sentences. The governor said he was “pleasantly surprised” with the anti-crime measures taken this year.
The governor “started with issues he could handle,” Del. Kenneth C. Montague, D-Baltimore, observed.
Montague said that broad-based support for controlling the trade of “extremely dangerous” guns will inevitably clash with support for gun-ownership.
“He didn’t want to go in unprepared,” Montague said of Glendening’s choice to let gun control go for the year.
Other crime action included:
– Pressure on judges to stiffen sentencing guidelines.
“We kept hearing how … either the prosecutors are taking pleas or how the judges, even with a conviction, aren’t sentencing,” said Del. Marsha G. Perry, D-Anne Arundel.
– A new commission of 31 officials that will make recommendations by 1996 to revamp the state’s court system.
“I think it’ll be one of the great successes of the next four years,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Mary Louise Preis, D- Harford, who fought off late amendments that could have killed the measure.
But others were skeptical of the courts commission:
“It may do something,” Senate Judicial Proceeding Committee Chairman Walter R. Baker, D-Cecil, said of the study. “I have no problem with picking people’s brains if they have any.”
– A commitment to study computer crimes, such as tampering with private company data, by next year. “We need to look at the whole technology to figure out what crimes are not addressed under existing laws,” Dembrow said. -30-