The Prince George's County Council acted yesterday to seek stiffer criminal penalties for prostitution and racketeering after a series of raids Monday in which six businesses identified by police as houses of prostitution were closed.
The council voted unanimously to send two bills drafted by the county office of law to state officials for introduction at next winter's General Assembly session.
One of the bills would increase the fine for prostitution from $500 to $2,000 and raise the imprisonment penalty from one to five years. The other bill would outlaw racketeering -- the business of crime -- by establishing a procedure through which law enforcement authorities could seize illegally gotten gains, including real estate.
Council members who have complained about the proliferation of sexually oriented photo studios, bathhouses and other "adult" establishments in their districts hailed both the closings and the proposed legislation yesterday.
"This kind of stuff is tacky," said Council Chairman William B. Amonett. "Although it may be educational for some and recreational for others, it's not needed in this county."
Council member Sue V. Mills, who brought the issues to the council's attention in April, said her only regret was that the county had taken so long to move. "We've done nothing to turn them away," she said of the sexually oriented establishments. "We've got to send them the message that they're not welcome."
County police used civil public nuisance statutes to close down the six businesses, citing them primarily for health hazards they said are created by illicit sexual activity allegedly conducted there.
A county health officer cited the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases in a document filed with court papers authorizing the raids, but no statistics detailing the incidence of diseases in such establishments was included.
State Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) expressed optimism about the bills' chances for enactment on the state level, although he noted that a bill similar to the racketeering proposal passed the State Senate this year but died in the House Judiciary Committee.
"I anticipate a great deal of sentiment in the General Assembly for this type of legislation," Miller said. The presence of sexually oriented businesses, he said, "is certainly bad for the image of Prince George's County."
In other business, two council members offered legislation that would revoke the county's lease with the nonprofit corporation that runs three county-owned hospitals and return direct control of the hospitals to the county government.
Council members Anthony Cicoria and Frank Casula, who presented the bill, said that getting rid of the hospital corporation board is the only way to remove doubt about the management of Prince George's General Hospital, Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital and Bowie Health Center. Two studies found that the hospital board was poorly managing the institutions.
County Executive Parris Glendening said through a spokesman that he feared the bill would involve the county in a legal battle if the county can't prove it has a justifiable reason for breaking the lease agreement.