ANNAPOLIS – Legislation expanding courts’ ability to sentence criminals to home confinement passed the Maryland Senate Monday over the objections of the state prosecutor, public defender’s office and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The legislation passed unanimously, 46-0, with Sen. Timothy Ferguson, R-Carroll, abstaining. Ferguson explained his abstention, saying the bill could allow drunken drivers with multiple offenses to avoid jail by serving home confinement.
The bill flew through the Senate in nine working days, but it’s unclear why it’s moving so fast.
It was first read on the General Assembly’s opening day, Jan. 12, and was sent back to committee, which heard testimony and voted it back to the Senate floor, over Ferguson’s objection, the next day. It is rare for legislation to be voted on the same day it is heard.
“I’ve never seen a bill pass that quick in the very first committee of the first session in my life,” said Ferguson, on the losing end of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee 9-1 vote approving the bill.
Ferguson delayed the second reading of the bill, when amendments can be made, from Jan. 17 to Jan. 20 to alter it to preclude multiple drunken driving offenders from staying at home. He said his amendments, supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, also inserted a definition of confinement: a halfway house or traditional prison.
Critics charge the bill is ambiguous without defining confinement.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving said it supports a broader definition of confinement – a prison or home confinement with proper monitoring by a state- licensed agency. The group has no problems with repeat offenders staying at home, as long as they’re properly monitored, because the law prohibits them from driving.
Ferguson’s amendments were defeated and he blames politics for their demise.
Ferguson ended up opposing his own committee chairman, Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil – a breach of Senate etiquette. Senators quickly realized a vote for the amendments could anger Democratic leaders in that they allowed a committee member to overrule his chairman on the Senate floor.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. indirectly referred to the action later in the session, pointing out that, traditionally, committee members do not contradict their chairman on the floor.
Politics may have played another role in the vote. Timothy Schlauch, executive director of a private home detection program and bill supporter, contends Ferguson opposed the bill because Schlauch might run against him in 2002. He said he told Ferguson the day before the committee vote of his intentions.
“Sounds like he took it personal. What do you get out of it when someone says, `I’m not going to vote on that to make this guy rich?'” he said.
Ferguson denied he knew Schlauch intended to run until after the vote, when he was told by fellow committee members who had heard it from Schlauch.
“I think Tim always had it in the back of his mind to run against me. He saw some kind of two-for-one. He thought he could use my ‘no’ vote against me and this allows him to put me on the defensive as if my vote is based on a personal thing,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said he will introduce another bill incorporating his amendments.
While Baker said the committee would look at Ferguson’s bill, he questioned whether it was necessary.
“I believe the bill that just passed will take care of drunk driving cases as well as any other cases,” Baker said.
The bill, which because of its emergency status will take effect as soon as enacted, moved through the Senate quickly because it’s not a complicated issue, Miller said.
“It’s such an easy bill to understand … It’s a very important, viable tool to better deal with our criminal population,” he said.
The legislation had the support of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, Miller told senators.
“Several of our judges have expressed the opinion that home detention is a very effective tool and beneficial sentencing option,” said a letter the judges sent to senators.
Clayton Greene Jr., Anne Arundel administrative circuit court judge and the letter’s author, refused to release the letter, but did comment on why he thought the bill was on the fast track.
“It’s important to have that fast. Everyday we’re sentencing people so why wait six months?” Greene said.
However, some critics, like State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli and Theodore Wieseman, a deputy counsel with the public defender’s office, said legislators should carefully consider the bill’s wording.
“I think the Legislature should be specific. We have too much legislation that is ambiguous and that they should define confinement,” Montanarelli said. “Things ought to be defined so everyone knows what we’re talking about.”
Judges decide what kind of confinement a person serves. It can range from electronic home detention to being home to receive a phone call. Wieseman agreed the lack of a definition is problematic and added another concern: people could serve more than their original sentence if confinement is made a condition of their probation. Probation can extend beyond a maximum sentence.
“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.
The bill now goes to the House of Delegates, which is already considering its own version of the bill.