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Doing Hard Time

Families Of Prisoners Convicted Under Repealed Mandatory-Minimum Guidelines Hopeful That A Pending State Bill Will Offer Relief

Christopher Myers
MAMA'S BOY: Terri Robinson holds a portrait of her mother with her brother, Francis Kordell, who is serving a mandatory-minimum sentence of 25 years without parole for burglary.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 4/6/2005

In February 2004, Terri Robinson and her family were at her mother’s deathbed, making a promise that they could not keep. They promised to get Terri’s brother out of prison.

Her brother, Francis X. Kordell, had been convicted in 1993 for daytime burglary. He was 28. At the time, that particular crime had just been deemed a violent crime by the state under a revised “three strikes” law passed in 1992. Since Kordell already had two previous convictions under his belt (for another daytime robbery and an assault), he received the then-mandatory minimum sentence for daytime burglary: 25 years, no chance for parole. The year after he was sentenced, daytime burglary was stricken from the code as a violent crime for which three-strikes sentencing applied. But it was too late for Kordell, who is now in his 12th year of his sentence.

As Terri Robinson was watching her mother die, there was a slim hope that a bill pending in the state legislature could help her brother. It would have examined the 75 daytime-burglary cases convicted as violent crimes between 1992 and 1994 under the three-strikes law and determined whether or not each case’s mandatory-minimum sentence should be reduced or commuted. After all, those who committed the crime after 1994 were not dealt such a harsh penalty for the offense. The bill, however, was squashed in the House Judicial Proceeding Committee.

“It was devastating,” says Robinson, who tried to make pleas to every delegate on the committee.

Now the state may be on the verge of passing a revised version of last year’s bill. It would not reduce sentences for the burglary crimes, but it would offer Kordell and others like him a chance at parole.

The new bill would establish a three-judge panel to look at each case and determine whether each convict would be permitted to go before the parole board, which would then decide whether or not to grant parole. As of press time, the bill passed in the Senate 29 to 17, and it will next be sent to Gov. Robert Ehrlich for his signature. It’s an opportunity that Kordell and the 75 other inmates like him have been hanging their hopes on for the past 13 years.

Still, advocates and families of the prisoners who were sentenced during the two-year window during which mandatory-minimum sentencing for daytime burglary applied are cautious about getting their hopes up.

“We’ve been so close so many times,” says one woman from the Washington area, who wishes to remain anonymous, who is in a relationship with a prisoner whose fate could be changed by the bill. “I’ve learned not to set myself up.”

Robinson and her family point out that the sentences of Kordell and others like him are much heavier than some criminals convicted of worse crimes.

“He has seen other people get out who have done much worse than him,” she says. “Not that he didn’t do wrong, but what we want is fairness, a proportional sentence.”

But such arguments don’t persuade William Katcef, an Anne Arundel County assistant state’s attorney who lobbies on behalf of prosecutors in Annapolis for the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association. Katcef says that criminals convicted during those two years received sentences deemed appropriate at that time. Just because the law changed doesn’t mean that the severity of their crimes changed, he says.

“If we’re going to really talk about this legislation, we really need to research their background,” he says. “When these people are described as nonviolent offenders, you might not be getting all you need to know about their background.”

Katcef also takes issue with the assumption that daytime burglary is a crime against property, rather than an act of violence. He points out that break-ins sometimes end in confrontation, violence, and murder.

But the offenders and their families feel they’ve been unjustly punished.

“There has to be a sense of justice where the punishment fits the crime,” says Jonathan Little, one of the 75 prisoners serving the mandatory minimum for daytime burglary. He is currently doing his time at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown. “You have rapists, murderers, who are serving less time. You have pedophiles with a five- or six-year sentence, and they receive probation.”

Baltimore City Del. Salima Marriott (D-40th) is the lead sponsor of the recently passed bill. She calls the mandatory sentencing for the crime “an error in the legislation process,” noting that it was added to a bill as a last-minute amendment while on the floor. “We have to be very careful with these amendments,” Marriott says.

The idea of sweeping away jail time with a stroke of the pen has not appealed to legislators in the past; they have been asked to address this seemingly inequitable law since 1999, but the appeals have always failed.

Tom Perez, a former prosecutor who is now an assistant professor at University of Maryland School of Law and the president of the Montgomery County Council, has been advocating for a bill to address the discrepancy for three years. He says that even some judges wanted to amend the sentences for these particular individuals.

“The feedback we had from judges has been, ‘I’d like to help you, that it’s really unconscionable that your client is serving all this time, but I can’t do anything about it. You got to go to the legislature,’” Perez says.

Marriott says her current bill was more palatable to legislators because it does not call for an outright sentence reduction, but rather a panel that would have to vote unanimously to send these prisoners to a parole board.

Even Katcef acknowledges that Marriott’s new bill is “a little bit better than what was originally conceived.”

The bill is closer to becoming law now than any other related legislation has been in the past, and Robinson, a stay-at-home mother of two who has never ventured further into politics than the occasional school-board meeting, has been actively lobbying the state for its passage. In February she provided emotional testimony to jump-start the bill. She says her brother, who is now nearing 40, is not the same person he was when he was convicted in 1993.

“He’s my youngest brother,” Robinson says. “I promised my mom when she died I would do everything I could to get him out of prison. I promised her, and that’s why I worked so hard.”

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