Maryland lawmakers arrived in Annapolis this year determined to pass a bill that would reduce the soaring rate of crime and violence in Baltimore.
But deciding the best way to do that has proved painful and divisive, as lawmakers from across the political spectrum debate how best to try to save lives while weighing the potential harm of harsher criminal penalties.
“We know we have to do something,” said Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore City), the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland. “Our constituents want us to do something. We can’t bury our heads in the sand, and we can’t keep slapping people on the wrists.”
Civil rights advocates, defense lawyers and some legislators say the bill that passed the Senate 36 to 8 and will be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee this week reminds them of tougher federal penalties enacted by Congress in the 1980s as part of the “war on drugs.”
But supporters of the wide-ranging bill — including Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) — balk at that characterization. Their focus is on repeat violent offenders and drug traffickers, not on people charged with nonviolent drug crimes. Supporters say they want a balanced approach to stop the bleeding in a place that USA Today last month dubbed the “deadliest big city” in the United States.
“We faced 347 murders last year in the city, and that doesn’t include the robberies at record levels,” state Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said on the Senate floor after voting in favor of the bill. “What this bill does is offer significant investment in community development in the type of diversionary programs that,” he said, would “divert crime in the long-term.”
Opponents have raised questions not only about the bill’s content but also about how the measure was crafted. The legislation started as a two-page bill offering tougher penalties for witness intimidation and became a 43-page comprehensive crime measure after amendments.
The good-government group Common Cause filed a complaint with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board alleging that the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee violated Maryland’s open-meetings law when it considered the bill. Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the committee chairman and the bill’s sponsor, said no rules were broken, noting that several measures that were added to the witness-protection legislation had already received their own, separate hearings.
The expanded measure would raise the maximum sentence from 20 years to 40 years for a second-time offender who uses a firearm in connection with drug trafficking or to commit a violent crime, and it would double the penalty for witness intimidation to 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000. It also would repeal a long-standing law that allows a defendant charged with or serving a sentence for a violent crime to be transferred from jail for drug treatment.
In addition, the legislation would add $5.25 million each year for four years, beginning in 2020, for anti-crime initiatives such as Baltimore’s successful Safe Streets program, which uses mediators to prevent violence in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.
“There is no approach to this that is like a magic wand; if we had it, we’d give it a shot,” Zirkin said. “We didn’t want to have one bill here and one bill there. We wanted one comprehensive plan.”
The Senate softened Hogan’s proposal, which included several mandatory minimum penalties for repeat violent offenders. Last year, the legislature did away with mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. Hogan also wanted to establish “truth in sentencing,” which would have required repeat violent offenders to serve their full sentences without suspension, parole or probation.
Although the sentencing changes apply statewide, the debate over whether they are needed centered on the headline-grabbing situation in Baltimore, which in 2017 saw the shooting deaths of a homicide detective and the brother of the Baltimore police spokesman, the fatal bludgeoning of a 97 -year-old Army veteran, the ouster of the police commissioner and the slaying of a young father outside a car where his infant daughter was strapped into a safety seat.
“We really needed to address that people were coming in and out of the justice system with no accountability,” said Christopher Shank, Hogan’s chief legislative officer. “We reached a compromise to move the ball forward.”
Other bills that aimed to address police corruption, including one that would disband the Baltimore Police Department, have not advanced.
A policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said she agrees that something needs to be done to address the high level of crime. But Toni Holness, the ACLU official, said she and others warn that tougher sentences included in the bill run counter to the criminal justice reforms made in Maryland in recent years and could lead to further mass incarceration that disproportionately affects young black men.
“Relying on failed policies of the past is not going to make us safer,” Holness said. “The increase in maximums tilt the scales of justice in favor of the prosecution and allows them to better negotiate plea deals, just like mandatory minimums.”
None of the five African American women in the Senate voted for the bill. One of them, Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), said she was concerned about increases in penalties that in some cases would apply to gun-related misdemeanors.
“We could just see the prisons filling up again for some things that are not significant,” she said.
Baltimore City Council member Brandon M. Scott (D), who chairs the Public Safety Committee and has spoken to members of the city’s delegation in Annapolis about the bill, also voiced some concern about tougher sentencing.
“We have to look at the historical data and the black and brown communities that have been affected by violence,” said Scott, who is running for lieutenant governor on attorney James Shea’s gubernatorial ticket. “Violence is a disease, and we need to treat it as a disease and take a public health approach. The policing portion is very important, but it’s not the only portion.”
Key lawmakers in the House say they are undecided about certain aspects of the bill but are determined to pass some measures to address violence in Baltimore.
“The issues that Baltimore is dealing with, it’s not as if you live outside Baltimore it doesn’t affect you. This is real for many of us,” said Del. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, who said that the brother of one of his relatives was killed last year.
Two provisions in the Senate bill were introduced in the House by Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), whose grandson was fatally shot in September. One provision added $3.6 million for Safe Streets; the other increased the second-offense penalties for carrying a gun illegally. The expanded bill also would create a violence-intervention program named in honor of Branch’s grandson, Tyrone Ray, and allocate $5 million a year to the program from 2020 to 2023.
Glenn said she finds “a lot of good in the crime bill, particularly when you look at the increased funding for Baltimore City.” But she said she would like to see changes, including an expansion of expungement, which allows a criminal conviction to be sealed or removed from a person’s record.
“We know that’s a barrier right now to many people we represent who are trying to live their lives in the right way,” Glenn said. “They want to go back to school, they want to get a job, they want to buy a home.”
Sydnor said he has not decided how he will vote. He wants to hear from supporters about how the bill might help Baltimore.
“We should be looking to do the right thing,” Sydnor said. “The question is: Is this the right thing?”