After Baltimore crime meeting, Hogan proposes 'truth in sentencing' legislation

After a closed-door meeting about “out of control” violent crime in Baltimore, Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday he plans to propose a major crime package during next year’s General Assembly session that includes truth-in-sentencing legislation.

The Republican governor met for about an hour in Baltimore with elected officials, including Mayor Catherine Pugh, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, all Democrats, as well as Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and acting U.S. Attorney for Maryland Stephen Schenning.

Afterward, Hogan said he was frustrated that violent repeat offenders are not receiving long prison sentences.

“We keep putting the same exact violent people on the streets,” Hogan said. “We’ve got to get them off the streets.” He and Commissioner Davis both made the point that those who commit and are victims of violent crime in the city are often caught up in a cycle of violence. Davis said the average homicide victim in Baltimore had been arrested more than 10 times.

In other states, so-called truth-in-sentencing legislation has often meant eliminating parole and good-time credits that reduce the sentences of prison inmates. Hogan, however, did not provide details about the bill he will propose. His spokesman said the legislation hasn’t been written.

“We’re going to push the legislature to get even tougher,” Hogan said. “So if you say you’re going to get this number of years, you’re going to get that number of years.”

The meeting with members of the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council took place at the governor’s Baltimore office on St. Paul Street downtown. Earlier this month, Hogan called for a meeting with city officials who work in criminal justice — including judges, prosecutors and politicians — to talk about what can be done to address the "tragic and disturbing violence being experienced in Baltimore City.”

But judges who preside over criminal cases in Baltimore declined to attend the meeting.

In a letter to Hogan, Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote that the three Baltimore judges who sit on the coordinating council — Circuit Judges W. Michel Pierson and Charles Peters and District Judge Barbara Baer Waxman — would not attend.

She cited a Maryland rule that governs how judges must behave: “A judge shall not be swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism.”

“Given such limitations, participation by members of the judicial branch in the meeting you are hosting on August 29 would be inappropriate,” she wrote.

Hogan noted Tuesday that the judges sit on the council and have attended its meetings in the past.

“It’s quite baffling and frankly very disappointing that they chose not to participate,” Hogan said afterward. “There was universal opinion of all the members of this commission that they should have been here. Everybody was very disappointed that they weren’t here. They do have a major role to play.”

Baltimore is grappling with a surging homicide rate. Violent crime is up 15 percent year over year.

Frosh, who described crime in Baltimore as a crisis, said afterward that Hogan never mentioned a truth-in-sentencing proposal during the meeting. Frosh also contradicted the governor’s statement that everyone agreed the judges should have been present. Frosh said it would have been “not proper” for judges, who need to be perceived as impartial, to discuss their sentencing practices.

“We have a problem in our country, led by the White House, of disrespect for the judiciary and disrespect for the rule of law. I think that’s the last thing we want to do in the state of Maryland,” Frosh said.

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, took issue with Frosh’s invoking of President Donald J. Trump.

“We have a problem in Baltimore City and either the Attorney General is going to be part of the solution or he isn't,” Mayer said in an email. “Not sure how complaining about the President and things happening in Washington D.C. is going to save lives in our state's largest city.”

Pugh said Hogan appeared “a little disturbed" that “none of the judges showed up.”

“There are too many suspended sentences,” she said. “We have repeat offenders continuing to walk the streets of our city. … The criminal justice system is not complete without the judges.”

Davis said tougher sentences are just one answer to Baltimore’s crime problem. He said holistic solutions, such as improving education and job opportunities, also are needed.

“Gun violence is what drives crime in our city,” he said. “People who make a decision to carry a gun in this city — and it’s a decision they make; it’s not an addiction — we have to arrest them, prosecute them and lock them up.”

Mosby said she and Schenning agreed to designate two more city prosecutors to press charges in federal court, where penalties are often harsher.

The criminal justice council meets monthly, and its meetings typically are open. Hogan said he closed the meeting to the public and news media to facilitate a frank discussion about Baltimore’s violent crime.

The governor’s staff also refused to allow two city lawmakers to attend the meeting: City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, and state Sen. Bill Ferguson, both Democrats. They are not members of the criminal justice group, but asked to join the meeting.

Scott called Hogan’s decision not to meet with him “ridiculous.”

Ferguson said, “I’d like to remind the governor there are multiple branches of government, all of whom are trying to solve a problem. … We were kicked out of a state building. It makes me sick.”

Former NAACP president Ben Jealous, a Democrat running for governor, was among those who gathered outside the meeting. He called for it to be opened up to the public.

“The timing of the meeting reeks of politics,” he said. “Whenever you see a leader close a meeting that’s normally open, you have to ask, ‘Are they trying to hide something?’ You have to ask, ‘What are they afraid of?’ ”

Maryland law requires public bodies to allow people to observe their discussions when a quorum is discussing the public’s business. But, according to the Maryland attorney general’s office, the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council does not fall under the definition of a public body.

However, a memorandum of understanding that created the council says its meetings “shall be open to the public.”

Hogan said he wanted to avoid a “media circus,” and described the conversation as sometimes getting heated.

“The beauty of a having a closed-door session like that is we could be very frank and open and say exactly what we felt,” he said. “This wasn’t for political purposes.”

Frosh said he would have “preferred this be an open meeting.”

“I don’t think there was anything said up there that hasn’t been said somewhere else,” he said. “The main message was we all need to work together.”

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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