ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Parole Commission plans to extend newly strengthened victims rights to victims of domestic violence “one way or another,” even if that means issuing an emergency order.
Patricia Cushwa, chairperson for the Maryland Parole Commission, said the commission is examining the new law to see if it covers victims of domestic violence whose cases end up in district court.
If it does not, she said, the commission will issue an emergency order that will allow domestic violence victims to participate in open parole hearings and be notified of the criminal’s status.
“It’s going to be extended one way or another,” said Cushwa, who said the commission is also looking to see if it has the authority to extend the victims rights by emergency order.
Under bills passed this session, victims of crimes that resulted in death or injury were granted the right to participate in open parole hearings and to be notified of a criminal’s parole status.
Cushwa said the clarification is needed because many domestic violence cases are often plea bargained down to district court, where the victims do not receive the same privileges as in circuit court cases.
Anne Arundel County District Judge James Dryden said that allowing domestic violence victims to appear at parole hearings for the abusers that serve prison time is “a fine idea.”
“It’s a good idea for victims to appear at hearings that affect the perpetrator,” Dryden said.
But he said most of the domestic violence cases that come through district court usually do not result in prison sentences unless the criminal is a repeat offender.
“It’s not going to happen very often,” Dryden said.
Cushwa said the commission chose to act through policy, instead of waiting for legislation, because it will get the privileges to the victims sooner.
Cushwa, co-founder of a group that runs a Hagerstown shelter for battered women, said she does not want to let criminals out without giving victims access to the system.
“We’re afraid they would have no input to the system,” she said.
Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick, who directed a domestic violence program before she became a legislator, said measures are needed to better protect victims of domestic violence.
“If somebody has been released on bond or released on probation, it’s very important for the victim to know they have been released,” Hecht said. “Any time we’re asking for notification, it’s for safety issues.”
Hecht said many of those convicted of domestic violence are likely to go after their victims again. It is very important for victims to be aware of the criminal’s status, she said, so they can go to a shelter or some other safe place if needed.
“The more safeguards we’re able to put in, whether it be policy or legislation, what we’re trying to do is help save lives,” she said.
Warren Spaid, executive director of Heartly House in Frederick, a shelter for domestic violence and rape victims, said he was not sure how much impact Cushwa’s proposed change would have. But anything that helps the victims is a step in the right direction, he said.
“Agencies such as Heartly House … generally support any process that supports the rights of victims and betters the situation they are in,” Spaid said.
Victims’ rights activist Roberta Roper, said the emergency order would save victims’ rights advocates from having to push legislation through the 1999 General Assembly.
She called the commission’s impending action just another step in implementing Maryland’s 1994 constitutional amendment for crime victims’ rights.
“Very often, victims say, `Why should I be excluded?'” Roper said.