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To curb crime, lawmakers consider tougher sentences

Rachel Baye

State lawmakers are considering something billed as the “Comprehensive Crime Bill of 2018.” The legislation was developed in large part as a response to the record levels of violent crime in Baltimore last year, and one of its biggest impacts would be tougher sentences for repeat violent offenders.

The bill has already passed in the Senate. It’s scheduled to have a hearing Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee.

During a press conference Monday afternoon, Gov. Larry Hogan urged House members to support the bill and emphasized that there are only two weeks left in the General Assembly’s 90-day session.

“We cannot afford to stand by while people are being shot and killed in our streets,” Hogan said. “The time is now to take action and to vote to give law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges the tools they need to finally get these shooters and repeat violent offenders off of our streets once and for all.”

The bill is called “comprehensive” because it folds in proposals originally included in other legislation. It includes protections for immigrants who are victims of crimes and help law enforcement investigate those crimes. It funds a gun-focused task force within the Maryland State Police and allocates money for several programs in Baltimore.

But the aspect that many supporters and opponents of the bill focus on is how it increases sentences for repeat violent offenders.

The bill does not increase mandatory minimum sentences, said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and the bill’s sponsor.

“I don’t personally believe in mandatory minimums because every case is different,” he said during an interview earlier this month.

Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, and several members of the city’s delegation in Annapolis have pushed for increased mandatory minimum sentences as a way to reduce violent crimes in Baltimore.

Hogan’s own bill increasing mandatory minimums never made it out of committee, but the governor praised Zirkin’s bill on Monday.

“With our tough sentencing for people that continually commit gun crimes and violent crimes, if we put people in jail then we’re going to clean up the streets of Baltimore,” Hogan said.

Zirkin said the difference between a mandatory minimum sentence and what his bill does is the amount of discretion given to judges.

“A mandatory minimum by definition is not parolable, not suspendable,” Zirkin said. “If convicted you get X numbers of years.”

For example, if someone commits a violent crime with a gun, current law says that person gets at least five years in prison and up to 20 years. If it’s that person’s second conviction of a violent crime involving the use of a gun, he or she cannot get parole or have the sentence suspended for the first five years.

Zirkin’s bill raises the minimum sentence for a repeat violent crime with a gun to 10 years and the maximum to 40 years, but it makes everything after the first five years eligible to be suspended or paroled.

“It’s not a mandatory sentence because it’s not necessarily time that you’re going to be serving,” Zirkin said.

But critics of the bill say there’s little difference between its increased sentences and increased mandatory minimum sentences.

“Increasing the mandatory minimums or increasing the maximums, you have someone behind bars for 40 years and then they come home. Then what?” said Caryn York, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, an advocacy nonprofit in Baltimore.

She said one of the bill’s biggest flaws is that it doesn’t solve the problems that perpetuate crime in Baltimore.

“Nothing in that bill provides any mechanisms of relief for those individuals so that when they come home they don’t return back to a life of criminal activity based on the fact that they’re returning to the same communities that they left 40 years ago and those same communities are in the same shape — lack of employment opportunities, affordable housing, illiteracy — all of these indicators,” York said. “And now they’ve returned with a criminal record. Game over for them, especially if you’re poor and black.”

A recent report by the Job Opportunities Task Force found more than 1,100 collateral consequences someone with a criminal record faces after returning home. For example, someone with a criminal record has a tougher time getting a job or going to college and isn’t eligible for many public assistance programs.

York said reducing some of those barriers could help reduce recidivism in Baltimore.

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