ANNAPOLIS – People who commit violent crimes in Maryland may soon face stiffer punishments if they commit their crimes near or on school property.
A bill being considered by the Maryland General Assembly would allow judges to double the maximum prison time or fine for people convicted of a violent crime on school property, 1,000 feet from school property or in a school vehicle.
“Schools should be havens, places where the focus is on academics,” said Carol Kilby, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, in a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Thursday. “There should never be an environment where gangs can foster, bullies can rule or parents can threaten.”
State law identifies an array of crimes – from robbery to sexual offenses – as crimes of violence. These crimes are felonies that carry penalties ranging from two years of prison time for a first-time offender to the most severe punishment: life without parole.
The bill applies to crimes committed within 1,000 feet of school property as well as on school property. Also, if someone is convicted of committing a crime while the school is not in session, such as during an athletic event, the judge can impose the toughened sentencing maximums.
Information on the total number of violent crimes committed on or near school property in Maryland was unavailable late Thursday.
But according to information from the Maryland State Department of Education, 608 students were expelled from schools last year for physically attacking a student, physically attacking a teacher, fighting, or sexual assault.
Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, said the bill applies to all people – and not just students – because “older kids that hang around the school” often commit crimes.
Prince George’s County Sheriff Michael A. Jackson said he believes harsher penalties will “put some teeth” into current enforcement.
Jackson said he thinks tougher penalties are necessary because gang violence from the community has spilled into schools and fights between students from rival schools at after-school events are a major concern.
The Maryland Association of Boards of Education supported the bill through written testimony. The association noted that although “school safety issues are much more complex than the challenges of preventing instances of extreme violence by students,” the bill would add needed “tools to the courts’ toolbox.”
But one witness raised doubts about the bill. The State of Maryland Office of the Public Defender, also in written testimony, argued that that the bill “is unlikely to have an effect on crime and is unnecessary.”
Jackson said that to really stop school violence, the state needs to do more that just pass this bill. He said “we need to send the message” that the state is working on this issue, but that they also have to educate students about the consequences of crime.
“This is not the total answer,” he said. -30- 3/02/06