Senators to consider what to do about Baltimore violence

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

State lawmakers are holding a marathon hearing Tuesday on Baltimore’s gun violence, the launch of what could be a months-long debate on how the General Assembly could help.

Baltimore’s per-capita homicide rate is on pace to break records for the third year in a row. In response, state senators have scheduled hours of testimony Tuesday, when they will hear from Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Police Chief Kevin Davis, schools CEO Sonja Santelises, health officials, state law enforcement, child advocates, public defenders, religious leaders and nearly two dozen others.

The public is also invited to attend and offer ideas. Leaders expect the session to go late into the night.

“The degree of violence has gotten outrageous,” said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which convened the 1 p.m. hearing in Annapolis. “Any violence is too much, but this is out of control. We're going to be looking at solutions, short-term and long-term.”

It’s unclear whether the hearing will prompt legislation or other action by the state.

“This needs to be attacked from a lot of different angles,” said Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. “We're here to help, and we need to know how.”

The hearing comes as Baltimore is in the midst of a crime surge that puts the city on track to surpass New York in homicides this year for the first time ever.

In Baltimore, 244 people have been killed in 2017. In New York — more than 10 times Baltimore’s size — fewer than 200 have been killed.

More than 300 people were killed in Baltimore in each of the past two years, ending hard-won progress that led to a lessened if still significant pace of violence. In 2011, 197 people were killed in Baltimore, just the third time since the 1960s there were fewer than 200 homicides in the city. Most of the homicides involve handguns.

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the governor welcomes the Senate hearing.

“Developing long-lasting solutions to Baltimore City's crime problem will require an all-hands-on-deck approach, including both state and federal authorities, supporting the city's efforts,” she said.

Several high-ranking Hogan administration officials will participate. They include representatives of the Maryland State Police, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

Chasse said they will discuss actions their agencies are taking to support crime-fighting in the city. She said when the General Assembly begins its annual 90-day legislative session in January, the administration will submit “a robust criminal justice legislative package.”

Hogan, a Republican, has previously said that package will include a “truth-in-sentencing” proposal. He has not yet spelled out details of that plan.

Pugh, a Democrat, has asked the governor for state aid in addressing the city’s crime problem.

The two officials say they have been in regular contact about ways the state can help. Pugh said last month that Hogan had pledged to send nearly $10 million to the city for police salaries, technology and training. He has said the state will help but has not publicly committed to a figure.

So far, Hogan has emphasized tougher sentencing for gun-related crimes. The governor recently sought a meeting with city judges to press his case. He was turned down when the judiciary concluded it would be inappropriate if judges appeared to be swayed by outside pressure.

Pugh and Davis have also pushed for tougher sentences for illegally carrying a gun, only to run into opposition in the City Council. Opponents of a bill that would have required a one-year mandatory minimum sentence for illegally carrying a gun said mandatory sentences are ineffective and have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who chairs the Baltimore Senate delegation, said she will be at the Senate hearing and hopes to hear useful ideas.

“I’m trying to be hopeful,” she said. “This is a real hard topic to come up with solutions.”

Brandon Scott, who chairs the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, plans to present that panel’s “Live to Be More” strategy to reduce gun violence in Baltimore.

Among other things, Scott said, he will seek the state’s aid in setting up a program to intervene in the lives of young gunshot victims who survive.

“We should focus on these young people and their families, especially the siblings of these young people,” Scott said.

Such a plan would involve agencies such as the Baltimore Department of Social Services and the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services as well as private groups.

The aim, he said, would be to break the cycle of gun attacks and retaliation, even if it means helping some families to relocate. He said the city needs state money as well as help from law enforcement agencies.

Besides government officials, the lineup will include representatives of nonprofits that focus on crime reduction.

Caryn York, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, said she will ask the committee to work on reducing barriers to employment.

“I will of course provide a context of the employment challenges that our workers and job-seekers in Baltimore face as a result of their interactions with the criminal justice system,” she said.

Among her recommendations will be easier expungement of criminal records that serve as a barrier to employment. York said many who are burdened with criminal records were arrested and charged but never convicted.

“They still have a record that’s complicating their efforts to find employment, housing, federal aid for education and other public benefits,” she said.

York said she doesn’t know whether the hearing will make a difference. In many cases, she said, the recommendations she will present are ones the committee has heard before but rejected.

“I’ve seen briefings like this before,” York said.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Democrat who represents South and Southeast Baltimore, said he’ll be there looking for strategies that go beyond policing.

“One problem is a lack of opportunities for young people who go astray because there are no positive alternatives,” he said. “The best way to fight crime is to build strong people and strong communities.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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