The Maryland Senate is on track to pass a bipartisan crime bill that supports much of Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to combat street violence while softening the Republican’s call for mandatory minimum sentences and a crackdown on gangs.
The broad bill packages several anti-violence proposals and was approved Thursday by a Senate committee with support from both Democrats and Republicans. But advocates for criminal justice reform say the process has been moving too quickly and has relied too heavily on prosecutors in devising longer jail terms that, they say, do little to rehabilitate offenders.
The bill proposes guaranteed spending for anti-violence programs such as Safe Streets in Baltimore, a program that aims to deter violence before it erupts, and efforts to build connections between police and young people.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee that approved sending the measure to the full Senate this week, said the bill is not aimed at reducing incarceration like the sweeping Justice Reinvestment Act, which was approved in 2016 and repealed some mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
“This bill focuses like a laser beam on the violent offenders,” the Baltimore County Democrat said.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor is pleased with Zirkin’s work and is eager to see the bill passed even though it proposes to eliminate some elements of the sweeping crime plan the governor announced in Baltimore in December.
“We appreciate his willingness to work with the administration on moving forward with many of the governor's proposals to reduce violent crime and get violent criminals off our streets,” Mayer said. “In general, we see this as a very positive development and will continue working... to ensure this very important omnibus legislation passes both chambers intact.”
The bill adopts some of Hogan’s get-tough approach but takes a different path to get there. Zirkin said his committee’s consensus was to reject many of the Republican governor’s proposals to increase mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of repeat gun offenses, but to increase the maximum sentences a judge can impose for dozens of violent offenses.
One example of the type of offense that could bring a longer jail term under the Senate proposal is a second conviction for using a handgun during a crime. Under the governor’s proposal, that and many other violent crimes short of murder could result in a 10-year minimum sentence. The judge would not be allowed to suspend any part of the sentence.
Under the Senate proposal, the potential sentence for possessing a gun while committing a crime would increase from 20 to 40 years.
Zirkin said the changes reflect a philosophical reluctance to approve mandatory minimums.
“Judges and prosecutors need to have discretion based on the individual case,” he said.
The high maximum possible sentences proposed in the bill — amounting to half a lifetime for many people — are justified for some of the worst violent offenders, Zirkin said. He said he did not envision many offenders serving the maximum terms but believes the higher maximums will give the state leverage when negotiating plea bargains.
“At some level you have to rely on prosecutors not to prosecute overzealously,” Zirkin said.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who represents Maryland’s prosecutors’ positions in Annapolis, said higher maximum sentences could aid prosecutors in striking plea bargains. If you’re a defendant facing 40 years in prison, the Democratic prosecutor said, “you may be pleading guilty and taking the 20 to 30 because you don’t want to roll the dice.”
“The parts I’ve seen are very good and I think they will certainly help in fighting violent crime everywhere in the state,” he said.
Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Frederick County Republican, said he expects to support the bill.
“It envisions a lot of what the governor put in,” Hough said. “It’s going to be a big bipartisan win.”
Sen. Robert G. Cassilly, a Harford County Republican, said dropping mandatory minimums isn’t much of a loss. He said if prosecutors and judges have an objection to required sentences, they typically find a way to charge a defendant with a lesser offense.
Still, the Senate’s quick work is making some criminal justice advocates nervous.
“It just feels like it’s on a fast track,” said Caryn York, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, a statewide nonprofit that promotes employment programs. She said the committee has been relying too much on input from prosecutors and shutting out other opinions.
“If we want to deal with this complex issue, it requires us to slow down a little bit,” York said.
She criticized the measure’s reliance on longer sentences.
“Nothing about increasing the number of years behind bars has shown us any type of special rehabilitation will occur,” she said. “They’re sitting for 20-30 years and then they get out.” By then, the offenders have few prospects for employment, York said.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender released a statement calling the proposal a knee-jerk response to crime.
“We all know tougher sentences work really well on the campaign trail, but we would have hoped that a more thoughtful approach would have come out of committee,” said Ricardo Flores, the agency’s government relations director.
The legislation will also include requirements for minimum spending over a four-year period on certain crime programs the Senate considers a priority. One is Safe Streets, which would get $14.4 million over four years. Others include Outward Bound programs to bring police and youths together, drug treatment programs for offenders and gun trafficking investigations.
The measure also provides $1.4 million over four years for witness protection, a program Zirkin identified as critical to efforts to fight violent crime in Baltimore.
If the bill passes the full Senate, it will move to the House Judiciary Committee. There is no House version of the bill, but Chairman Joseph Vallario said Zirkin has kept him informed about how the bill is shaping up.
“We’re going to look at it and give it a chance,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said.
Zirkin said the Senate plans to replace the governor’s legislation intended to deal with gangs such as MS-13 and the Black Guerrilla Family and call for a task force to study the issue instead. He said the state’s existing law dealing with gangs is “just not a useful tool for prosecutors” and needs improvement.
On the gang issue, Shellenberg said it’s important to strike a balance that lets police and prosecutors focus on catching the right people without casting the net too wide. He said a task force is a good idea for this year.