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To curb gun violence, officials focus on repeat offenders, tough sentences

Rachel Baye

The meeting of the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Tuesday morning was closed to the public and to the press, but the city and state officials who attended said tougher sentencing practices was a major focus of the discussion.

Speaking in the lobby of his Baltimore office after the meeting, Gov. Larry Hogan said his biggest concern is that violent offenders are escaping jail time through suspended sentences.

“The average person who’s been killed in the city has 11.9 arrests on their record,” Hogan said. “One day they’re the shooter, the next day they’re the victim, and it’s the same people shooting each other, and we’ve got to get them off the streets.”

He accused judges of “waiving” mandatory minimum sentences. He said he plans to introduce legislation to address the practice, which he referred to as “truth-in-sentencing legislation,” when the General Assembly returns to Annapolis in January.

“If you say you’re going to get this number of years, you’re going to get that number of years,” Hogan said, adding that the bill would apply specifically to repeat offenders.

Hogan didn’t offer additional details about the legislation.

Truth-in-sentencing laws in the 1980s and ‘90s were designed to close the gap between the sentences handed down in court and the amount of time prisoners spent behind bars, rather than out on parole.

Attorney General Brian Frosh said there seemed to be confusion in Tuesday’s meeting about whether judges could bypass mandatory minimum sentences.

“There was a concern that the mandatory minimum sentences that now apply to certain violent crimes and to gun crimes are being suspended by the judges, and they cannot be,” Frosh said.

Hogan’s support of tougher sentences was echoed by Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who were both in the meeting.

“We need better housing, we need better education, we need more jobs, we need better job training — we need all those things,” Davis told reporters. “But right now where we find ourselves, we need to hold people responsible and accountable who particularly choose to carry a gun and shoot other people in our city.”

But Pugh said it was difficult to discuss sentencing practices without the three judges who are members of the committee.

“Everybody plays a role in terms of how we reduce violence in our city,” she said. “It’s not one specific solution, but this is a solution that the governor wanted to talk about, and that was not suspending sentences, and we were not able to have that discussion today.”

Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera told Hogan in a letter last week that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the judges to attend.

Frosh said the same thing following Tuesday's meeting.

“The focus of this seemed to be sentences that judges are giving, and that I do not think it is appropriate for the judges to participate in,” he said.

The judges weren’t the only ones not there, though, because the meeting was closed to the public.

That allowed for a “frank and open discussion,” Hogan said.

But the decision was heavily criticized.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, who represents South Baltimore, and City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the Council’s Public Safety Committee, were both asked to leave the building when they tried to enter the meeting uninvited.

Frosh said he wished the meeting had been open to the public.

“I don’t really think that there was anything that was said up there that hasn’t been said in public somewhere else,” he said.

The state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings committee plans to hold its own meeting on the same topic next month in Annapolis.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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