Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on thedailyrecord.com on April 20, 2018.
Decades ago a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, not known for his colloquy, reportedly rose as the legislative session came to an end and stated: “I have come to the conclusion that the making of laws is like the making of sausage — the less you know about the process the more you respect the result.” That assessment was perhaps never more poignant than during the recently concluded 2018 Maryland General Assembly legislative session and the handling of public safety legislation.
The Greater Baltimore Committee, whose mission is to find solutions to problems that hamper business competitiveness, economic growth and job creation, has identified public safety as the most significant challenge facing Baltimore City’s future viability.
Last year Baltimore had a record number of homicides. According to the Baltimore Police Department, firearms were involved in many of the violent acts. Of the 342 people killed in 2017, nearly 88 percent were killed with a firearm. Additionally, more than 100 people were arrested at least twice on handgun charges from early 2016 to mid-2017. Based on those facts, any strategy to effectively fight crime must include a special focus on firearms and repeat violent offenders.
After studying the issue for more than a year, the GBC recommended pursuing a two-pronged approach. The first is crime prevention – acknowledging the inequity and poverty that plague many of the city’s citizens and investing in proven and effective programs that create better opportunities and an environment for youth to succeed, develop strong workforce and career skills and overcome social inequities.
But crime prevention is not enough. It does not address the carnage of homicides and violent crime occurring daily on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Baltimore. The second prong is crime control. It needs to be attacked with equal vigor. The city is in need of innovative, effective and fair crime-fighting strategies to quell the surge of violence on the streets today. A major element of that strategy must include a focus on the small percentage of individuals who police say are committing violent crimes.
Due to the unprecedented violence, efforts to improve public safety and reduce violent crime were destined to play a more prominent role in this year’s legislative session. Last summer, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee conducted a marathon hearing in search of solutions. During the 2018 legislative session, nearly 200 public safety bills were introduced, ranging from instituting harsher penalties for certain crimes to funding violence prevention programs.
As part of its two-pronged approach, the GBC supported legislation aimed at tougher penalties for repeat violent offenders and legislation to provide grant funding for local governments to implement evidence-based public health approaches to gun violence, guaranteed funding for the Safe Streets program, diversion programs for juveniles, and much-needed funding for other related Baltimore initiatives.
Gov. Larry Hogan proposed significant public safety reform through a package of bills aimed primarily at instituting stronger penalties for using a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence, requiring second-time violent criminals to serve their full sentence and improving the state’s gang statute.
After hearing the legislative proposals, Senator Robert “Bobby” Zirkin of Baltimore County, the seasoned and powerful chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, constructed a single omnibus crime bill incorporating aspects of Hogan’s legislative proposals and providing funding mandates for evidence-based public safety initiatives. The bill received Senate approval with enhanced criminal penalties but eliminated the mandatory minimum penalties as a result of heavy opposition from lawmakers and advocates who insisted the bill would lead to mass incarceration and would have a disproportionate impact on people of color.
In the House of Delegates, the bill was met with substantial disdain as many special interest and advocacy groups continued to argue, incorrectly, that the legislation contained mandatory minimum incarceration provisions. These misleading lobbying efforts, whether intentional or the result of simply not reading the amended bill, made passage of the comprehensive package unlikely. This jeopardized the portions of the legislation that the same special interest and advocacy groups supported.
Fearing that the bill may not have sufficient votes to proceed, legislative leaders chose to divide the Zirkin bill into separate pieces of legislation to receive final approval during the remaining days of the legislative session.
Ironically, despite earlier strenuous opposition to the comprehensive crime bill package, virtually all of the provisions of the omnibus bill received approval in the form of separate legislative proposals. This included a legislative proposal that added a mandatory minimum penalty and other enhanced penalties.
The legislature approved measures to ensure that repeat violent offenders faced longer and guaranteed prison terms, increased penalties for the second or subsequent offense of certain firearms crimes, guaranteed funding for programs such as Safe Streets, victim and witness relocation, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program and more.
The process wasn’t pretty, demonstrating that the legislative sausage-making principle remains true, but the result was substantive. Legislators adopted policies supportive of addressing Baltimore’s crime problem, including initiatives consistent with the GBC’s two-pronged approach of crime control and prevention.
But legislation alone doesn’t solve the public safety problem. We must now work as a community to use the tools provided by the legislature to ensure that public safety no longer threatens the economic vitality of one of the state’s most important economic engines.
Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.