ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates appears ready to pass a bill that would give prison inmates time off their sentences for earning high-school diplomas and other degrees, despite complaints from Republicans and some Democrats that the measure extends an undeserved privilege to some of the state's worst criminals.
The chamber on Tuesday debated the legislation, which would cut 60 days from the sentences of inmates who achieve educational milestones such as a diploma or two- or four-year college degree.
Supporters say that providing prisoners an incentive to learn while behind bars will improve their odds of successfully re-entering society upon release. The state already offers diminution credits — time taken off a sentence — for many inmates who exhibit good behavior, pursue an education, receive job training or complete work tasks and special projects while in prison.
"We have to be able to make sure that prisons are run smoothly and are not violent places," said Delegate Kathleen M. Dumais, Montgomery Democrat. "This is something that will help with that. Allowing someone to get an education is not something anyone should be ashamed of voting for."
Currently, prisoners can receive as many as 10 days off their sentences for each month of good conduct and five days off for every month spent pursuing education or job training.
The state requires inmates who didn't finish high school and are serving 18 months or more to work toward a diploma, although many fail to finish. Maryland does not currently offer college courses for inmates.
The latest proposed diminution program was endorsed by the state's Task Force on Prisoner Re-Entry, which was formed 2009 to find ways to lower recidivism rates.
It would take 60 days off an inmate's sentence for educational accomplishments, but would not apply to certain sex offenders — such as those who had victims younger than 16 or are serving life sentences. Those offenders are already barred by state law from receiving diminution credits.
Delegate Patrick L. McDonough, Baltimore County Republican, successfully submitted an amendment Tuesday that would also exclude inmates convicted of first- and second-degree murder or attempted murder from receiving the two-month credit in exchange for a degree.
Mr. McDonough, who submitted failed amendments to exclude violent criminals and rapists, argued that the bill coddles criminals and gives them perks at taxpayer expense while ignoring the suffering of their victims.
"If we do not stand up to this philosophy of criminal benefits, it will prevail and continue," he said. "It must stop and this legislation is clearly where it can stop."
Supporters of the legislation cited studies saying that inmates who receive in-prison education tend to have better job prospects upon their release and end up back in prison less often.
State analysts say the state spends about $170 a month to house each inmate and that the bill could eventually save the state more than $400,000 a year by releasing qualified inmates two months early.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., Prince George's Democrat, said the bill was backed by corrections officials and received little complaint from victims' advocates.
"If they were opposed to this bill they would have been up in arms," he said. "Crime victims want to reduce recidivism as much as anybody else. This is an answer."
The House is expected to vote on the bill this week, potentially sending it to a Senate committee.
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