ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly is likely to face a slate of safety bills when it convenes in January that run the gamut from terrorism protection to stanching the streak of teen driving deaths, said lawmakers with an interest in the topic.
Lawmakers plan bills on making the roads safer through tougher driving restrictions and serious juvenile justice reform. And some may even meet Dec. 3’s pre-filing deadline to put their issues high on the legislature’s calendar.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich has not announced his legislative agenda, but press secretary Greg Massoni said the governor will continue to promote homeland security initiatives through state agencies; Project RESTART, a program to reduce recidivism through rehabilitation and education; and Project Exile, which seeks to reduce gun violence by enhancing prison time for gun crimes.
“Certainly we’re concerned for the process of taking care of juvenile justice,” Massoni said.
House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, said he can almost guarantee bills to impose further restrictions on teen licenses, disqualifications for commercial driver’s licenses and enhanced penalties for witness intimidation will come before his committee.
Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-Calvert, said he has pre-filed a teen passenger restriction bill, which he has long pushed for, while Montgomery Democratic Delegates William Bronrott and Adrienne Mandel, said they will sponsor a similar restriction in the House.
Given recent back-to-back teen driving deaths, including 11 youths killed in Montgomery County since September, Vallario said he would not be surprised if he sees a bill to increase the legal driving age.
“We’ll keep an open mind, hold the hearings and see where they go,” he said of all the proposals likely to cross the committee’s desk.
On the Senate side, Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, said his committee will surely tackle problems in the juvenile justice system, which he said “seems to lurch from crisis to crisis.”
“I’m not sure what legislatively we can do about it,” he said. “The problems are just so pervasive it’s hard to know where to begin.”
Delegate Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, and chairman of the Juvenile Law Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, said he will be submitting a package of bills focused on turning around the “absolute disaster” of the state’s juvenile services department.
“It’s in freefall now,” said Zirkin, who advocates permanently closing the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School and the Cheltenham Youth Facility. Violence and questionable incident-reporting at those facilities has caused child-safety advocates to say youth are endangered there.
“It costs a fortune, it’s a constant struggle, we are warehousing kids, instead of treating them,” he said.
Frosh said he supports revamping the system by establishing after-school reporting centers where juveniles could be monitored in their own communities.
One issue likely to be resurrected from its death of last session is an assault-weapons ban, which failed in Judicial Proceedings last session by one vote.
But Sen. Robert Garagiola, D-Montgomery, who sponsored last session’s ban, said he doubts the “swing vote will swing in my favor.” In that case, he said, he will pursue enhanced penalties for assault-weapons crimes instead.
Frosh also said the committee will review the application of the death penalty, in response to a University of Maryland study, which found the decisions are racially and geographically biased.
Other safety stakeholders are outlining their legislative agendas, too.
The Maryland Association of State’s Attorneys is targeting aggressive drivers, especially excessive speeders and red-light runners. It will continue its five-year effort to classify aggressive-driving crashes that result in death as homicides. Delegate Pauline Menes, D-Prince George’s, a Judiciary Committee member, said she is sponsoring such a bill.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler, the association’s legislative chairman, said its second priority is to end suspected drunken drivers’ right to refuse breath tests.
“It is illegal to drink and drive above a certain level,” said Gansler. “It is not a self-incrimination issue.”
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