Maryland lawmakers have repeatedly killed legislation sought by corrections officials to crack down on the smuggling of cellphones into prisons, a key element of the gang culture that thrived in the Baltimore jail at the center of a broad federal indictment.
Bills that would have stiffened penalties for inmates and corrupt guards have died for four years in a row in the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that was first to call for hearings after racketeering charges were announced by federal prosecutors nearly two weeks ago.
No one has suggested that the legislation is a panacea, but supporters say that if it had passed in 2010, when first requested by Gary D. Maynard, the state’s corrections secretary, the situation at the Baltimore City Detention Center might not have gotten so out of hand. According to the indictment, the Black Guerilla Family gang essentially took over the institution. Guards smuggled in cellphones and drugs and had sex with gang members.
“If this had passed several years ago, it would have made a huge impact,” said Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. (R-Baltimore County), a retired police officer who sponsored the most recent version of the legislation this year. Cluster argued that the prospect of additional incarceration would have swayed some inmates, who often get away with “a slap on the wrist” now, and given pause to more guards considering involvement.
Law enforcement officials say cellphones enable inmates to plot assaults and escapes. And they make it possible for inmates to practice a form of telecommuting from prison to coordinate drug and gang activity and to harass witnesses and order killings on the outside.
Under the legislation, inmates caught with a cellphone for a second time would have faced felony charges that could result in up to five additional years being tacked onto their sentences. Under current law, cellphone possession is a misdemeanor, regardless of how many times inmates are caught, and the punishment does not automatically lengthen their incarceration. The legislation also would have increased penalties for guards, visitors or anyone else who delivers or attempts to deliver a cellphone to an inmate.
As the problem has grown nationally, states are trying a variety of strategies to fight back, including tougher penalties. Mississippi, for example, is cracking down this year using a contraband law that carries felony sentences of up to 15 years in prison. And Idaho passed a law last year that makes the crime a felony with a potential five-year sentence.
Maynard said that the bill would not have cured the problems at the Baltimore jail — “I am not blaming this on that,” he said — but that “it would have been one step in a number of steps.”
He said the threat of stiffer penalties could have affected correctional officers, whom the department can place on leave without pay when charged with a felony. An aide explained that the loss of a paycheck can be “the breaking point” for guards considering going astray.
Testimony in favor of the bill this year by Baltimore police cited the operation of the Black Guerilla Family in several Maryland correctional institutions as one reason to pass the bill. Over the years, the legislation has also drawn the backing of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, the Maryland Sheriffs Association and the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
In testimony last year, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office said “the use of cellphones in correctional facilities has proven to allow gangs to increase membership and power by exerting control over other inmates and correctional officers.”
The bill died this year, as it had before, on a closely divided vote in the House Judiciary Committee, where several dominant members, including Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), are defense attorneys.
One of them, Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), said he was concerned that branding cellphone violators as felons would have serious consequences, including a loss of voting rights and difficulty finding employment, upon their release.
“Felonies are usually reserved for the most serious of crimes: bank robberies, murders, rapes,” said Anderson, who requested that Vallario call a hearing next week on the situation at the Baltimore jail. The hearing has since been postponed.
Vallario did not return a call seeking comment. Anderson said that Vallario opposed the bill for much the same reasons he did.
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), the committee’s vice chairwoman, said the “primary reason” the bill failed is that prosecutors have pursued few cases of cellphone abuse under the current law.
“It might make people feel better to increase the penalty, but I’m not sure it’s effective,” she said.
Dumais also said that Maryland is among many states experimenting with cellphone jamming technology that could soon make the issue largely moot.
“The best way to defeat the effectiveness of the inmates having cellphones is to make it so the cellphones don’t work,” she said.
Rick Binetti, a corrections department spokesman, said prisons officials have made a concerted push since mid-2010 to develop more and better cases for prosecutors on cellphone possession. That has resulted in several hundred cases, he said.
Cluster blamed Vallario, who has presided over the Judiciary panel for two decades, for the bill’s demise. “The chairman didn’t like it, that was the main reason,” Cluster said.
An identical version of the bill died this year in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Members said the bill had a chance there but they voted it down as a procedural matter: Since it had been killed in the House two weeks earlier, there was no point in passing it.
Legislation was sponsored in the House by Maynard’s department in 2010, 2011 and 2012. After a string of failures, aides said, they decided to try something different by letting lawmakers take the lead in both chambers.
The legislation has drawn the opposition of the state’s judicial branch, because it mandates consecutive sentences for repeated cellphone convictions. The judges said that they should have discretion to decide whether that is appropriate.
The state employees union that represents correctional guards has also expressed reservations, saying that sometimes officers bring cellphones into prisons by accident.
“The bill creates the possibility of an extreme penalty for employees that may have made a simple mistake,” a representative of the union wrote to the Judiciary Committee last year.
Annys Shin contributed to this story.