ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers continued to expand victims rights this year, approving bills that will notify victims of plea bargains and give more people the right to speak at parole hearings.
Those changes were included in a package of five bills — four of which passed — that were proposed by the Task Force to Examine Crime Victims’ Rights Laws in Maryland.
“We pretty much accomplished what we wished to accomplish,” said Sen. Norman Stone, D-Baltimore County, and the Senate representative on the task force.
Victims rights advocates vowed to be back in the future for the one measure that failed, which would have made it easier for victims to file a claim with the Court of Special Appeals if they felt their rights had been denied.
“That one was really an aggressive first attempt to establish some remedies for when victims’ rights are not upheld,” said Adam Gelb, policy adviser for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
Gelb called the package of bills that were approved “a further extension of the push to open every aspect of the system to victims.” The bills would:
* Require that state’s attorneys notify victims, when possible, of the terms and conditions of a plea agreement if the victim has filed a form asking to be notified of any such deal.
* Require a judicial review panel to hold a hearing before reducing a criminal’s sentence and to notify the victim, who would have the right to attend any such hearing and address the panel.
* Make it harder to keep victims out of the courtroom, by requiring a court to find that a defendant would be denied a fair trial without the sequestration. It would also prohibit a court from sequestering a victim after he or she has testified.
* Expand the current, specific, list of “violent crimes” for which a victim is allowed to speak at parole hearings. Under the bill, the list would include child abuse or any crime that results in physical harm or death.
Task force member Roberta Roper said the five bills are needed to fill in gaps in Maryland’s 1994 constitutional amendment for crime victims’ rights and the Victim’s Rights Act of 1997.
Roper, director of the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, said she was disappointed at the failure of the one bill but that she was not about to give up on it.
“That will be one of the first things that the task force works on,” she said.
“I believe that one will be back next year,” Stone said. The bill passed the Senate but was killed by the House Judiciary Committee.
Maryland Parole Commission Chairperson Patricia Cushwa said the number of crimes for which victims can participate in open parole hearings will continue to increase.
“We are going to be doing more and more open parole hearings,” Cushwa said.
Gelb said that Townsend’s chief concern was winning approval of the bill that lets victims be notified of plea agreements. He said the lieutenant governor, who testified on all of the bills, singled that one out because she said many victims feel hurt when their cases get resolved without them knowing what has happened.
“You get four out of five, that’s not bad,” Gelb said of the bills that passed. “When you take the four that passed together, I think we made another series of important advances in victims’ rights.”