Loitering fines set for big jump in Prince George's County

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Local,Maryland,Crime,Ben Giles

Loitering in Prince George's County could cost violators as much as $1,000, or double the old maximum penalty, after the County Council approved a bill hiking the fine.

A person caught loitering for the first time will now be issued a written warning -- first-time offenders used to face a fine of up to $100.

A second offense carries a fine of up to $500 and/or a jail sentence of up to 30 days, and the bill added a possible $1,000 fine for a third loitering offense, along with up to 30 days behind bars.

"It's a lot of money, not just for a 14-year-old kid, but even for a grown man. That's a lot of money," said Darryl Barnes, president of the nonprofit Men Aiming Higher, which focuses on mentoring 16- to 29-year-olds in Prince George's County.

An offense can be written up only after a person has been notified by police that their actions -- be it standing on a sidewalk, street or path in a manner that obstructs the free passage of other members of the public -- are unlawful and they have been asked to move along.

The bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Karen Toles, D-Suitland, passed the council's vote unanimously despite concerns over the size of the fine. Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison, D-Bladensburg, voted for the bill even after noting that not all loitering leads to other crimes.

"As a mother of two boys, not all children, because they're standing around, are creating havoc," she said.

The measure drew the support of the Prince George's County police, which cited the 11,728 calls for service involving loitering that the department received in 2011, up nearly 26 percent from the 8,956 such calls in 2010, according to Maj. Robert Liberati, commander of the county's Forensic Science Division.

"It's a major drain on our resources," Liberati said.

Toles compared the fine with those the county charges for illegal dumping, which can cost as much as $30,000, she said. Fines that high are rarely actually charged to violators, she said.

"It's strictly a deterrent, just like those fines for dumping," Toles said. "They're quite extreme, but hopefully they're a deterrent to people to not engage in that behavior."

And the written warning for first-time offenders is a lenient alternative to an automatic fine, according to Toles, who added she wants to focus on finding jobs for residents so they have something to do besides standing on the street.

"That's where organizations like mine mentoring young kids come into play," Barnes said. "My job is to get them in community activities and other things that will challenge them to do stuff other than just hanging out."

Examiner Staff Writer Matt Connolly contributed to this report.

bgiles@washingtonexaminer.com

bgiles@washingtonexaminer.com

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Ben Giles

Staff Writer - Crime Beat
The Washington Examiner