Baltimore leaders on Friday proposed changing city law to require a mandatory one-year sentence for illegal gun possession in much of the city — within 100 yards of a school, park, church, public building or other public place of assembly.
The bill would prevent any part of the one-year sentence from being suspended, and preclude those with such convictions from receiving parole.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said she’d like to do more to restrict guns, but “this is what we can do locally” without changing state law.
Pugh acknowledged that there is a church or a school “on nearly every corner” in the city, and said “as it relates to this legislation, that’s a good thing.”
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis praised the bill as a much-needed change to help the city address its soaring violence. Baltimore is on pace to surpass 300 homicides for the third year in a row. Before 2015, that mark hadn’t been reached since the 1990s.
Davis said more than 60 percent of individuals with gun convictions in the city since the start of 2016 have had more than half of their sentences suspended. He said the city does not have a problem with legal gun owners, but with illegal gun offenders intent on committing violent crime who are not afraid of being caught with a deadly weapon.
“It’s about holding the right people accountable,” he said.
Davis noted that the restriction of the measure to illegal gun possession within a certain distance of specific locations is what makes the provision legal under Maryland law. Broader changes to gun sentencing would require legislation at the state level — which Davis has sought unsuccessfully for years.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe wrote that such a bill “would be permissible” in a July 5 letter to Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat who is chair of Baltimore’s House delegation in Annapolis.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he would introduce the bill Monday. He said it would serve “as a tool to help get the most dangerous and violent repeat offenders off the streets of Baltimore.”
Young said mistakes have been made in the past implementing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses rather than taking a public health approach to drug addiction. But he said people walking around with illegal guns are “people on the verge of shattering the hopes and dreams of another family in Baltimore,” and need to be dealt with more harshly.
Pugh, Davis, Young and Anderson were among a broad coalition of elected officials and other law enforcement, business and religious leaders who gathered to announce the bill Friday at City Hall. The group also included state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chair of the city’s Senate delegation; and Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee.
They said the effort within the city would be followed by a push to pass even harsher penalties for illegal gun possession during the next legislative session in Annapolis.
City Council members who attended in support of the bill were Leon F. Pinkett III, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Robert Stokes Sr. Other council members voiced their opposition to the bill Friday, including Ryan Dorsey and Kristerfer Burnett.
Dorsey said the legislation should not be fast-tracked.
“This is not something that we should decide on overnight,” he said. “It’s going to disproportionately impact black people and communities negatively. I haven’t seen any evidence that mandatory minimums actually deter any sort of crime.”
Burnett said the city would be better off increasing funding for the Safe Streets program and schools and treating violence as a public health issue.
He argued that mandatory minimums do not decrease crime.
“We are under a lot of pressure right now from community members living in neighborhoods experiencing violence to do something,” Burnett said. “I don’t want to minimize their fears, but we have a responsibility to enact good policy as well.”
Some criminal justice reform advocates and defense attorneys also expressed opposition to the bill.
Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the Public Safety Committee, said he believes there are good intentions behind the bill, but he also has concerns that must be discussed as he and his colleagues consider the legislation.
“We know mandatory minimums have been specifically shown to overwhelmingly impact poor black people, and in Baltimore we know that we have an unfortunate abundance of poor black people, particularly poor black men who have already been impacted by mandatory minimums,” Scott said. “We have to figure out how to make sure that those violent repeat offenders who feel comfortable carrying guns are being punished, but at the same time we cannot have things that are going to make things worse when you’re talking about the grand scheme of young poor black people in our city.”
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, whose office often strikes plea deals with gun offenders in which the offenders receive sentences of less than a year in prison, was not at the news conference.
In response to questions about the bill and its potential impact on plea negotiations, her office released a statement that did not mention the legislation. It said Mosby is “committed to holding criminals who wreak havoc in our city accountable for their actions and [supports] all efforts intended to strengthen gun control.”
At a “pop-up” event for youths Friday night, Mosby declined to elaborate on her position, saying her written statement “speaks for itself.”
Pugh said Mosby had expressed general support for the bill but had some issues with it, which Pugh declined to describe.
The judiciary did not respond to a request for comment.
Under the proposed bill, judges would not be allowed to suspend any of the one-year sentence, and those convicted would not be eligible for parole. They could still get out before a year based on special credits for good behavior and other work activity, unless the bill is amended to make such gun offenders ineligible for those credits.
On Friday, Anderson, Pugh and other legislators said they would return to Annapolis in the next session to argue for even stricter penalties for gun possession — including a five-year mandatory sentence for an illegal gun possession conviction.
“We’ll be adamant about the passage of the legislation,” Conway said.
Davis has spent years arguing for such penalties at the state level, lobbying legislators in Annapolis without success. However, opposition to such changes may be thawing.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun on Friday, state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is chair of the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he will back a change to state gun laws this session.
Zirkin said he will support a bill that makes illegal gun possession statewide a felony with a mandatory, non-suspendable minimum sentence. He has not decided what he thinks that minimum should be, but said the city is in “an emergency situation” and he is “willing to try anything at this point.”
Zirkin said Baltimore officials are free to pass a local ordinance in the meantime, but he does not think the law change at the state level should be restricted to the city.
Changes to state gun laws have traditionally received pushback from legislators who represent more rural communities. Zirkin himself has previously balked at such changes, saying he supports judicial discretion in sentencing. On Friday, he said still believes in judicial discretion as a philosophy, but the “outrageous” level of violence in Baltimore has softened his stance.
He also said a change in the gun law alone will not save Baltimore.
“If anybody thinks that's all it's going to take, they're kidding themselves,” he said.