Law enforcement officials across Maryland lined up yesterday behind a proposal by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to toughen the state's sanctions against criminals caught with guns.
At a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, state's attorneys and police officers told lawmakers that Ehrlich's proposal - known as Project Exile, after an established program - would help reduce gun violence by making it illegal for people convicted of felonies to possess any firearms and requiring mandatory sentences for gun-related crimes.
The governor and U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio announced last month that federal prosecutors will more aggressively pursue gun cases in Baltimore and Prince George's County. Ehrlich's bill would apply to state prosecutions.
"I don't want to stand here and say it's a silver bullet that's going to make gun violence go away," Glenn F. Ivey, Prince George's state's attorney, said in support of the proposal. "But I think it is a useful tool."
Proposal opponents and some lawmakers, including the committee chairman, questioned Project Exile's effectiveness.
"There is at least one or more studies that show it doesn't work," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "I think if you want us to make it a major policy change, there has to be something more behind it than 'It might work.'"
The committee is considering two Project Exile proposals, one from Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, and the other from the Ehrlich administration. The bills are similar.
Under Ehrlich's proposal, the state would:
Require prison sentences of five years for use of any firearm during the commission of a felony or violent crime.
Make it a felony to possess with criminal intent a firearm on school property.
Increase the penalty for firearms possession to 20 years for people with previous convictions for violent crimes or drug-related felonies and to 10 years for those convicted of other felonies.
Prohibit court commissioners from granting bail to people charged with serious gun crimes, and ban judicial panels from decreasing mandatory minimum sentences.
Donald J. Hogan Jr., Ehrlich's deputy legislative officer, said the bill is designed to close loopholes in the law. "If you're charged and convicted of a gun crime, ... you're going to be put away," he said.
Ehrlich's plan seeks to replicate the premise behind the Project Exile program, which became popular after it started in Richmond, Va.
Virginia law enforcement officials credit the program for reducing the number of gun-related homicides and crimes.
"We didn't want to just put these guys away," said Michael J. Costigan, executive director of the VA Exile-Project Safe Neighborhoods Foundation. "We wanted to change behavior."
But the state public defender's office raised concerns that some provisions of the governor's proposal could disproportionately affect African-Americans and juveniles.
"One serious concern that the Office of the Public Defender has is the unintended consequences for youth," said David Fishkin, the office's juvenile division chief. "That will inevitably involve a greater number of children being charged as adults."
But law enforcement officials said the continuing problem with gun violence requires tough action against violent offenders.
"Maryland continues to have the highest rate of gun-related crime in the country," said Col. Edward T. Norris, state police superintendent. "There are just a whole lot of illegal guns out there."