Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey is launching an effort to crack down on first-time gun offenders to stem the rising level of gun violence in the county -- including many shootings in which the trigger was pulled on impulse.
Three weeks ago, Ivey (D) directed his prosecutors to start seeking a jail term of one year for anyone convicted of a handgun violation, even if the defendant had no prior conviction or wasn't committing a violent crime at the time.
In Maryland, illegally carrying or transporting a handgun is a misdemeanor with a possible maximum sentence of three years in jail. But first-time offenders have often served little or no jail time.
Ivey said he is also putting together a team of prosecutors to focus on gun offenses.
"We want to get the message out there that there are consequences for carrying a gun. We're trying to transform the expectations," said Ivey, who will publicly announce the plan today in television and radio interviews.
The initiative comes against a backdrop of increasing firearms violence in the county. As of yesterday, there had been 129 homicides in the county this year, excluding several being investigated by town police departments; last year, there had been 110 homicides in Prince George's by the same date.
In an interview, Ivey said he intends to focus on people who might be prone to impulsively using a handgun in anger.
"The guys who carry guns in their waistbands everywhere they go," Ivey said.
He said he is not targeting offenders who are not dangerous. For example, he said, he would not seek to jail an otherwise law-abiding person charged with illegally transporting a handgun because he failed to properly secure the weapon in his car as he drove to or from a target range.
The new policy applies to defendants age 17 and older. State's attorney's supervisors can make exceptions depending on circumstances, Ivey said.
Such offenders have frequently received a sentence of probation or, on the high end, 90 days in jail, defense attorneys, prosecutors and county judges said.
State sentencing guidelines recommend that state judges impose a sentence of probation to two years in jail for a first-time gun offender, said defense attorney Richard A. Finci, a member of the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, a gubernatorially appointed committee that develops sentencing guidelines.
Finci and other defense attorneys decried the new policy.
"I don't dispute the problem's there. I just dispute that it's an effective solution," said Finci, a past president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association.
Finci said young men who carry handguns because they believe they need them for protection are unlikely to be deterred by the prospect of a year-long jail sentence.
One of the first defendants to be prosecuted under Ivey's new directive is Emmanuel Taiwo, 20.
About 8:30 p.m. July 29, Prince George's police caught Taiwo in Lanham with a loaded .380-caliber handgun, according to prosecutors. Taiwo is not accused of shooting the weapon or brandishing it.
Last week, District Court Judge Thurman H. Rhodes convicted Taiwo of illegally carrying the gun. At the request of prosecutors, Rhodes sentenced Taiwo to one year in jail, Ivey said. (As with all District Court convictions, Taiwo will get an automatic appeal in Circuit Court.)
In neighboring Montgomery County, which had 18 homicides in 2004, first-time gun offenders often receive no jail time, though prosecutors frequently ask for a sentence of 30 days, said Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D).
In the District, a firearms offense is a felony with a possible five-year sentence. Officials with the U.S. attorney's office in Washington said that prosecutors often seek jail time for first-time gun offenders but that many receive probation.
Gun offenders with prior criminal records face stiff sentences in the state and federal criminal justice systems. In Maryland, using a handgun during a crime of violence carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence. Last year, the southern division of the Maryland U.S. attorney's office prosecuted 111 gun cases involving defendants who had been previously convicted of a felony. In the federal system, a defendant who had previously been convicted of three felonies could be sentenced to 15 years in prison for a gun offense.
"We're trying to transform the expectations," Glenn F. Ivey says.