- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Maryland Senate is scheduled to vote as early as today on a bill intended to clamp down on the highest bank-robbery rate in the United States.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Tuesday approved an amendment to a bill that would increase the prison sentence by five years for robbers who pass threatening notes to bank employees.

An example occurred Tuesday in Baltimore, when a man at the downtown Carrollton Bank handed a teller a holdup note and made off with stolen cash.

The legislation is supposed to be a deterrent to the kinds of people who committed 299 bank robberies in Maryland last year.

If “more people are getting prosecuted under strict penalties, the word is going to get out,” said Maryland Sen. Rob Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

In 2003, 233 bank robberies were reported in Maryland, the Maryland Bankers Association said. In 1999, the number was 200.

In the FBI’s Maryland-Delaware region, bank robbers made off with more than $2 million last year, the agency reports.

The original bill would have established bank robbery as a crime separate from other robberies and increased the maximum prison sentence from 20 years to 30 years.

Opponents of the legislation within the General Assembly said the penalties would be too severe and forced a compromise.

The Senate bill was changed to conform with a House bill that would increase penalties only to “note-passers” in robberies who threaten violence with a weapon.

The Maryland House approved the legislation last Thursday.

“It doesn’t go as far as we would like it to go, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Kathleen Murphy, president of the Maryland Bankers Association.

Virginia allows penalties of up to life in prison for armed robbery.

In the District, bank robbery is prosecuted under federal law with a maximum penalty of 20 years, or 25 years if a dangerous weapon is used.

As the General Assembly tries to agree on a punishment, opinions vary on why bank robberies have been increasing in Maryland.

“We’ve gone from a time period 10 years ago when robberies were almost unheard of in our bank to the point we have several a year,” said Hunter Hollar, chief executive officer of Sandy Spring Bank. The Olney-based bank operates 30 branches in six counties.

He speculated that light penalties and convenience make banks attractive targets for robberies.

“Our folks are trained to do what they ask, not to endanger themselves,” Mr. Hollar said.

Mr. Garagiola said the FBI’s greater emphasis on counterterrorism in recent years might have stretched the agency’s resources.

About 65 percent of bank robberies are prosecuted by the federal government, the Maryland Bankers Association said. The rest are prosecuted under state law.

“There are greater demands placed on federal agencies because of homeland security,” Mr. Garagiola said. “You see more responsibility being put on the states. They’re having to step in and fill the void of what federal law enforcement has been doing.”

The FBI blames drug abuse as a major factor in robberies of all kinds.

“We don’t know the exact reasons,” said Barry Maddox, spokesman for the FBI’s Baltimore field office.

“We do know there is a major drug problem in the Maryland area, specifically Baltimore city. When we arrest people, they admit having drug problems.”

Baltimore County had the highest number of bank robberies last year, with 96. Prince George’s County was second with 62 bank robberies. Montgomery County was third with 28.

The fewest bank robberies were in Garrett, Calvert, Caroline, Somerset and Worcester counties, all of which had no bank robberies last year.

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