Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on thedailyrecord.com on February 15, 2018.
Baltimore has experienced some good news of late in the fight against violent crime. No homicides were reported for 12 days, the longest streak since 2015, according to news reports.
Mayor Catherine Pugh attributes the public safety initiatives that she has implemented to this welcome break in tragic killings. Others have said that it is not entirely clear what factors were behind this historic break in violence. Whatever the reason, the streak ended Feb. 13, when a 22-year-old man was gunned down in east Baltimore.
As this latest death reminds us, the city desperately needs a turning point that can last longer than a mere 12 days when it comes to murder and other violent crime.
Baltimore closed out 2017 with 342 murders, which tied a record set in 2015. Many contend that repeat violent criminals are primarily the culprits. Police data confirms this: Eighty-five percent of those identified as suspects in murder cases have previous arrest records. The number of repeat violent offenders wreaking havoc has led to an unprecedented contagion of violence in the city that continues and must be stopped.
Law enforcement experts contend that more must be done to ensure that more of these repeat violent offenders are arrested, convicted and sentenced to incarceration and not left on the streets due to lenient sentences, probation or parole.
State and city elected leaders are generally in agreement that Baltimore’s violent crime problem needs more attention and resources and that the focus should be on violent offenders. The Greater Baltimore Committee has been advocating for a two-prong approach that includes long-term steps, such as improved public education, job readiness programs, and increased youth job programs but also short-term crime control steps, including new law enforcement approaches and tougher public safety measures. It is essential that long-term and short-term approaches are pursued with urgency and an equal level of commitment.
On the public safety front, Governor Larry Hogan stepped up when he introduced a package of bills to be considered by the General Assembly. The legislative proposals are primarily aimed at addressing homicides and other violent crime in Baltimore. The bills are not a magic fix, but they are sensible new tools to address violent crime.
At General Assembly committee hearings considering his proposals, his package was met with disdain by many in the legislature.
They argue that the bills are a throwback to previous failed policies and would result in more people being unjustly jailed. They also contend that more public safety approaches are not the answer and that only long-term approaches of education, recreation centers, and job opportunities are needed. It’s not clear if this opposition is driven by a knee-jerk reaction to terms such as “mandatory minimum sentences,” election-year posturing or simply a misreading of the bills.
But a look at the three key pieces of legislation and related crime data provides a clear snapshot of how the proposals would strengthen the ability of law enforcement, prosecutors and the judiciary to curb the key drivers of the violent crime wave.
First, the governor has proposed legislation that would address guns and their use in the commission of a crime. The bill would add to existing law a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for a second offense involving the use of a firearm. It would mandate that those convicted of gun offenses would not be eligible for parole and that sentences imposed must be served consecutively, not concurrently, to sentences imposed for the underlying crime (i.e., burglary, carjacking.) Also, the proposed legislation would change the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence from a misdemeanor to a felony.
This legislation isn’t aimed at massive incarceration. It is not a corollary to the “mandatory minimum” sentences of decades ago that sent many to prison for even minor drug offenses. It’s directed at gun-toting criminals who have track records of mayhem. That is a distinction from the “failed policies of the past.”
The grim statistics when it comes to crimes committed with guns is clear:
- Eighty-eight percent of the 342 people killed in 2017 were murdered with a firearm, according to Baltimore Police Department data.
- The total number of shootings in 2017 exceeded 600, based on crime data analyzed by The Baltimore Sun.
Gangs are also a problem. Experts estimate that there are more than 330 drug trafficking gangs operating in the state, some with notorious operations in the city.
A second bill backed by the governor would amend existing law by adding a number of crimes, including bribing jurors and obstructing justice, to qualify as charges that can be filed under the state’s gang statute. It also would strengthen the penalties for threatening someone with violence to coerce them to join a gang.
The proposal isn’t a greenlight to fill prisons. It provides police, prosecutors and the judicial system new tools to put violent gang members behind bars.
The governor’s third bill would mandate that a person sentenced to life in prison would not be eligible for a parole hearing for 25 years, rather than the current 10 years.
Life sentences are reserved for those convicted of the most heinous crimes and the legislation seeks to keep the worst of the worst behind bars.
Elected officials in Annapolis need to put knee-jerk reactions and election-year posturing aside and get solidly behind public safety. The businesses, hospitals, universities and other institutions and their employees who expect a safe city to live and work are watching and waiting.
So, too, are the families and neighborhoods suffering from all the bloodshed.
Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.