Crime was one of those emotional issues that legislators knew everyone back home was concerned about. Little old ladies were being mugged almost routinely. Well-armed taxicab drivers in Baltimore city seemed to be in daily shootouts with back-seat bandits. The black community, increasingly victimized, was crying for blood. Local prosecutors were complaining that their hands were tied by laws restricting treatment of juveniles, the state's right to appeal judges' rulings before a trial begins and the length of time accused persons could be held in jail before trial. Gun control advocates were clamoring for a stiffening of Maryland's weak handgun law, to make it as tough on illegal gun-toters here as in New York and Massachusetts.
But although the crime issue had an effective constituency and a lot of back-home visibility, it did not have an effective lobbyist or spokesman in the Statehouse. The ready anticrime constituency was never galvanized behind a specific agenda in the same way as labor unions or relatives of drunk driving victims. Everyone agreed that something had to be done, but the churches, civic groups, law enforcement officials and senior citizens never launched the kind of coordinated Statehouse lobbying blitz that scared legislators into raising the drinking age.
The end result was that most of the year's well-publicized but largely symbolic tough-on-crime bills died in a stalwart House committee comprised of conservative lawyers, former police officers and prosecutors who traditionally have resisted tinkering with laws. The bills that made it through were largely procedural and relatively modest, compared to some of the harsh proposals that threatened to give Maryland a Chesapeake version of Islamic justice.
One bill passed requires judges to impose a mandatory 10-year prison term for twice-convicted drug dealers. Another makes it easier to confiscate money and profits earned from illegal drug peddling. Another bill, aimed at the rising tide of juvenile crime, lets local prosecutors decide whether to try 16- and 17-year-olds charged with violent felonies in adult courts. Burglary was added to the list of violent felonies, so that now burglars will face the mandatory 25-year jail term for a third felony conviction.
Maryland got a new prison in Hagerstown, over the futile objections of western Marylanders who argued that their faraway rural corner of the state was becoming the dumping ground for unwanted, predominantly black, urban inmates. But in an election year, the eyes of legislators and the governor were cast to November, and in the state's political equation, vote-sparse western Maryland really doesn't count for much.
As a concession to the westerners, General Assembly conferees included a provision that the state's next planned prison cannot be built anywhere near an existing prison facility.