According to Maryland State House legend, whenever House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph E. Owens wants a favorable vote on a bill, he scratches his thinning white mane forward, and a majority of his committee votes "aye." Whenever Owens doesn't like a bill, the legend goes, he scratches his head backward, and the majority votes "no."
Owens, a crusty and conservative former Army colonel, doesn't deny the often-told story of his control over his committee, although he finds it "... a little bit exaggerated."
If the legend holds true, Owens' scratchings will be important to follow as his committee reviews more than 100 bills aimed at getting tough on crime, the issue that's surpassed Reaganomics, the gas tax and redistricting as the top priority of the 1982 General Assembly.
The flurry of crime bills -- about a quarter of all House bills introduced -- is caused by reelection-minded legislators anxious to reflect a recent statewide poll showing crime to be the number one issue on citizen's minds. The bills, many of which are duplicate and triplicate efforts on the same theme, generally take the direction of harsher penalties, mandatory sentences, treating juveniles like adults, and compensating victims.
But many of these measures face long-standing problems. Owens, when asked about the committee's traditional dislike of mandatory sentences, noted, "The problems with mandatory sentences are still the same. The jails are all full."
Although one type of mandatory sentence already exists in Maryland, requiring life in prison without parole for those convicted of their fourth violent crime, the proposals would add new cases where judges would be forced to impose set terms.
"The number of bills is indicative of the members' concern," said House Majority Leader Donald Robertson (D-Montgomery). "But the number of bills introduced doesn't have any relationship to the number of bills that will make it out of Joe's committee."
Stiffer penalties on ownership of unregistered handguns does interest Owens. Such measures have failed in past sessions, but this year Gov. Harry Hughes, silent on the issue for three years, has said he favors a mandatory one-year sentence for those carrying unregistered guns.
In addition to the gun bill, Hughes added his voice to the anticrime chorus by composing his own criminal justice package, concentrating on the corrections process. Hughes' proposals, which have the support of most of the legislative leadership, include higher pay for prison guards and state troopers, more prison guards, mandatory sentences for second-term drug offenders, and more than $40 million for construction of a maximum security prison at Hagerstown.
The prison bill is likely to pass this session after years of political warfare between those who didn't think it was needed, and those who wanted it built anywhere but in their back yards. Factors such as inmate overcrowding and federal court orders requiring better prison conditions have improved the chances of the new prison being built.
"It has to be done," said Sen. Victor Crawford (D-Montgomery), who heads a task force on prisons. "We have no choice. If we're going to start locking the [criminals] up, we've got to have someplace to put them."
"I don't think there'll be any opposition -- except maybe the location," said Del. John Hargreaves, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which will first vote on the money for the project.
In addition, the Hughes package would make it easier to try juvenile repeat offenders as adults, and would separate the serious juvenile detainees from those considered minor offenders.
"I think the governor's crime package is balanced," said Senate President James Clark Jr. "I think it will be well received."
But the package faces competition from the pet bills of individual legislators, who have stuffed the hopper with a variety of measures to compensate victims, to make parole more difficult to obtain, to protect the children and the elderly, and to make it easier to convict those charged with rape.
A summary of some of the most popular crime measures introduced this session: Victims' Compensation
At last count, eight bills in the House and one in the Senate would aid crime victims. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which awards cash to crime victims, is cash-strapped, with most of its revenues coming from a $10 fee paid by all convicted criminals. One bill would increase that fee to $15, and another bill would tack on an additional $30 for felonies and $20 for misdemeanors.
Sponsors of those bills hope that increasing the fees will enable the board to stay afloat while handling its growing caseload.
Two other bills, modeled after New York's so-called "Son-of-Sam" bill, would prohibit criminals from profiting from their crimes through movie and book contracts. Under both bills, all such contracts must be submitted to the compensation board, and all profits are awarded to crime victims.
A separate bill would order all state and local law enforcement agencies and state's attorneys to provide forms and information to crime victims, letting them know how to apply for compensation.
In the Senate, Sen. John J. Garrity is backing a bill to require judges to take into consideration the impact of a crime upon the victim before handing down a sentence. Parole
The House is considering a bill to abolish parole for persons convicted of using handguns in violent crimes. The Senate is considering a measure that would require persons convicted of robbery with a deadly weapon to serve at least half of their sentence before being eligible for parole. Children
Several bills are pending that try to protect Maryland's children from being exploited, corrupted and snatched off the streets.
Majority Leader Rosalie Silber Abrams in the Senate and Del. Donald Munson in the House would both like to make child abduction a felony. In hearings last week, Senate Judicial Proceedings panel members heard a suburban Baltimore mother, Sharon Taylor, recount her three-year plight to find her children, who were taken from her home by her husband in defiance of a court custody order.
Taylor told the senators that when she located her children in South Dakota the governor there refused to extradite the husband since in Maryland child abduction is only a misdemeanor. Also, if child-snatching were a felony, Tayor said, the FBI could use its resources to track parents who abduct their children. The bureau is reluctant to get involved in misdemeanor offenses.
Another House bill, sponsored by Del. Frank M. Conaway, would impose a fine up to $15,000 and a jail term up to 10 years on any person who "promotes, induces, commercially exploits, authorizes, solicits, employs, or knowingly permits" a child under age 16 to engage in "sexually explicit" conduct. Currently, Maryland law specifically prohibits only parents or guardians from exploiting children. "We want to get at the pimps and the ones who run these houses of ill-repute," Conaway said. Elderly
Several bills in both houses seek to protect the elderly and the handicapped, imposing stiff mandatory sentences for criminals who victimize the elderly or the handicapped.
One delegate wants to double the normal sentence of any convict when the crime was committed against a person over 60 years old or against a disabled person. Another would set a 10-year mandatory jail term for criminals convicted of robbing the elderly or the disabled.
Two companion bills in the House and Senate would require custodians and guardians who care for the elderly and the handicapped to report any suspected cases of abuse to the proper investigatory agency.