Don Fry Commentary: Salvos over public safety in Maryland, Baltimore

February 27, 2020

In recent days, the debate in Annapolis over legislative proposals to address public safety concerns has become personal and emotional between Gov. Larry Hogan and legislative leaders.

There are multiple bills pending in the House of Delegates and Senate of Maryland to enhance public safety initiatives throughout the state – although most of the concern is focused on Baltimore City. The approaches differ, with the governor calling for more mandatory minimum sentences for repeat violent offenders, increased judicial transparency and victim restitution. Meanwhile, the legislature’s focus is on increased penalties for the failure to report lost or stolen guns, penalties for possession of stolen guns, creation of a statewide law enforcement coordinating council and a comprehensive statewide study/audit of all gun crimes. Both the governor and legislative leaders support strengthening laws on witness intimidation.

What combination of these ideas will prevail is difficult to predict at this stage of the legislative session, but, without question, public safety-focused legislation will be enacted this year.

Data surrounding the victims and suspects of homicides that occurred in Baltimore City in 2019 provides insight into clear deficiencies within the criminal justice system that must be addressed.

Of the 348 homicide victims in Baltimore City in 2019, 285 (81.9%) had prior criminal records, including 233 victims (67%) with a drug arrest history, 153 victims (44%) who had been arrested for a gun crime and 140 of the victims (40.2%) who had been previously arrested for a violent crime.

But perhaps the most shocking statistics pertaining to the victims of homicide were that they had an average of:

  • 10.8 arrests, and
  • 106 (30.5%) were under the supervision by the state’s Department of Parole and Probation.

An analysis of the data surrounding the suspects involved in the homicides is equally troubling.

Upfront, a suspect has been identified in only 25% of the homicides. Of the 86 suspects, a startling 70 (81.4%) had prior records, with 38 (44.2%) having been arrested for previous gun crimes. More than half (52.3%) of the homicide suspects had been arrested for violent crimes and 60% had a history of drug arrests.

The homicide suspects had an average of 8.2 arrests and 26.7% were under the supervision of Parole and Probation at the time of their arrest.

This high-level analysis, when considered in relation to the public safety legislation pending in the General Assembly, points to the need for certain reforms:

  1. Stricter sentences for repeat violent offenders must be considered. Mandatory minimum sentences may not be appropriate for a first-time offender, but it is unconscionable that the average number of arrests per victim was 10.8 and the average number of arrests per suspect is 8.2. The repeat nature of criminal acts demonstrates a disregard for the potential consequences of those engaged in violent conduct. Although the Judiciary is resistant to increased transparency regarding the sentences that judges hand down in criminal cases, the excessive degree of multiple convictions suggests that current sentencing is not deterring individuals from violent conduct. The Judiciary has an obligation to assess its responsibility in protecting the public as well.
  2. Significant steps must be taken by the Department of Parole and Probation to ensure more effective supervision. More than a quarter of those involved in homicides, as either a victim or a suspect, were under their watch. Better tracking or monitoring of those under supervision for violent offenses is a must.
  3. Enhanced coordination among state and regional law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and state agencies would greatly improve the sharing of information and intelligence about those involved in the criminal justice system or suspected of a criminal act, identify support services for those with a drug history, improve coordination among law enforcement agencies, and provide better communication about those under parole and probation supervision. The proposal for the creation of statewide/regional law enforcement coordinating councils seems to be a logical step toward enhancing coordination.
  4. Strengthening witness intimidation laws to protect those who are seeking to assist in providing valuable information to convict violent offenders is a policy agreed upon by both the governor and legislative leaders. It is critical that they find common ground to ensure this vital protection is provided for law abiding citizens.

Arguments can be advanced by all sides, suggesting that they have the solution to our public safety challenges. I suggest that there is no universal answer or magic elixir that will guarantee an immediate turnaround, but that we should use evidence to make informed policy decisions. It is time to move past the rhetoric and advance proposals that address the structural deficiencies exposed by the raw data surrounding Baltimore City’s 2019 record homicide numbers. 

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.

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