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Bill would enhance penalties for smuggling cell phones into jails

March 12, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU | kaustuv.basu@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS — A Senate committee Tuesday heard testimony for a bill that would enhance penalties for those trying to or smuggling cell phones or other telecommunication devices into jails and prisons and those receiving such contraband.

The bill has been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly by Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, and Sen. Joseph M. Getty, R-Baltimore County/Carroll.

Shank said at the hearing that the bill deals with a “pressing public policy issue.”

He said that additional penalties are needed because despite the efforts of prosecutors, these devices were still being smuggled into facilities.

Shank said that the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has confiscated more than 2,000 cell phones since 2008.

“We need prosecutorial tools in order to deter the flow of these cell phones into the prisons,” Shank said at the hearing.

The additional penalties would make a second or subsequent violation a felony and include up to five years of imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $5,000.

According to the state’s Department of Legislative Services, the current penalty for such offenses is a misdemeanor and includes up to three years of imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $1,000.

The bill seeks to make consecutive, instead of concurrent, any sentence that is ordered for an inmate who received or is in possession of such a device.

According to an analysis of the bill by the DLS, experts say that cell phones give an opportunity for inmates to carry on criminal activity while they are serving time.

“Cell phones are a lucrative form of contraband because, unlike drugs, they have significant and perpetual resale and rental potential and value,” the analysis said.

The analysis gave the example of Patrick Byers, who in April 2009, was found guilty in Baltimore of the murder of Carl Lackl Jr., a witness who planned to testify against Byers in a trial involving another murder.

“Byers used a contraband cell phone while in jail to order and arrange payment for Lackl’s death,” according to the analysis.

The Maryland Judicial Conference — which consists of judges from the Court of Appeals, the Court of Special Appeals, the Circuit Courts and the District Court of Maryland — is opposing the bill because of the “consecutive sentence” provision.

“These provisions take away judicial discretion and preclude the court from considering the individual facts and circumstances of each case,” according to written testimony filed against the bill by the conference.

At Tuesday’s hearing, representatives testifying in support of the bill included representatives from the Baltimore Police Department, the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and the state’s Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services.

“Second only to weapons, cell phones in my opinion are the most dangerous type of contraband that we find in our prisons and our jails,” said Ed Parker, a deputy director at the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, at the hearing.

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