ANNAPOLIS – A bill expanding authority to sentence criminals to home confinement was rushed through a state Senate committee Thursday over the objections of a committee member and the public defender’s office.
“I’ve never seen a bill pass that quick in the very first committee of the first session in my life,” said Sen. Timothy Ferguson, R-Carroll, a senator since 1995 and member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Ferguson, the only dissenter in the 9-1 vote, said he didn’t understand why the committee voted on the bill the same day it heard testimony about it. Generally, the committee takes a week between a hearing and a vote. Ferguson said he voted against the bill because he didn’t have time to research or consider the matter.
Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the bill was moving fast to provide relief to the state’s courts.
“The only choice a judge has is to give them complete probation or put them on hard time,” he said.
Only courts in Allegany, Calvert, Cecil, Charles, Harford, Garrett and St. Mary’s counties have the authority to sentence criminals to confinement as a probation condition. The legislation was drafted to give that power to all the counties in the state because a 1998 Court of Appeals decision ruled that they didn’t have it under current law.
The bill was sponsored by Baker; Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s; Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel; Sen. John Astle, D- Anne Arundel; Sen. James DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel; and Sen. Robert Neall, D- Anne Arundel.
The legislation is clearly moving swiftly: it got its first reading on the Senate floor Wednesday, was voted out of committee Thursday and will get its second reading Monday. During the second reading, amendments will be offered from the Senate floor.
Any amendments will be added in the bill’s final version that will be voted on by the full Senate during the third reading.
The bill also was introduced as an emergency, meaning it will be effective the minute it’s signed by the governor, should it make it that far.
Theodore Wieseman, a deputy counsel with the public defender’s office who testified at the hearing, said he thought the bill was on the fast track.
“I think there are people who want to get this legislation through,” he said. “The people who are running the programs.” Private companies provide home monitoring and equipment, such as electronic ankle bracelets.
Wieseman told the committee it should clearly define the term confinement in the legislation. The term could include house arrest, electronic monitoring and simply being home to receive a phone call once a week, he said. A judge determines the type of confinement a person receives, he said.
The bill’s wording could cause sentencing problems, Wieseman told the committee. For instance, someone convicted of a crime with a 10-year maximum penalty could be sentenced to seven years in jail and five years probation. In Maryland, probation time can exceed the maximum sentence but cannot be longer than five years. With house arrest as a condition of probation, the convict would end up serving 12 years – two years more than the maximum sentence.
“The public defender’s office would like to get some language to make it clear … and not have to wait for the courts to do it,” Wieseman said.
The recommendations Wieseman made to the committee went unheeded, as the members passed the bill with no major revisions.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli supported Wieseman’s argument that legislation should be drawn more specifically.
“We have too much legislation that is ambiguous and that they should define confinement,” said Stephen Montanarelli, state prosecutor. “Things ought to be defined so everyone knows what we’re talking about.”
However, Joe Cassilly, Harford County state’s attorney, said the language is clear and he has had no problems since his county started using confinement three or four years ago.
Cassilly said a judge would not sentence someone to more than their maximum sentence. In Wieseman’s example, Cassilly said, the judge would instead impose a sentence of seven years in prison, three years house arrest and five years probation.
Ferguson asked whether people convicted of violent crimes or driving while intoxicated would be eligible for confinement. He said he worried the bill could lead to an increase in repeat offenders.
“Whom among my constituency does it help besides lawyers, judges and convicts?” Ferguson said.
Baker said the committee voted on the matter because the bill “doesn’t need clarification.” “They’re putting too much stuff in the law. You got to use common sense and you can’t legislate common sense,” he said. “And if the court says … we made a mistake, we’re legislators, we’ll fix it.” -30- CNS-1-14-00