A young woman who says she carried a gun for her own protection. A truck driver passing through Baltimore with a gun in his cab. The manager of an optometrist’s office who, after a car accident, was found to have a gun in his vehicle.
As Baltimore’s City Council considers a proposed one-year mandatory sentence for those who illegally carry guns, The Baltimore Sun reviewed dozens of cases in which people were charged last year with illegal gun possession. The review found several instances where a first-time offender was released, only to be caught again with a gun.
But it also found that not everyone caught with a gun is the kind of hardened criminal police blame for driving violent crime in the city.
Erica Kells, 27, received a 90-day sentence after she was arrested with an unloaded handgun in December outside a Boost Mobile store on Pennsylvania Avenue. Kells, who works at a carwash, says she carried a gun for her own safety. She acknowledges she hadn’t applied for a state permit to legally carry a handgun, but argues a year in jail would have been an unfair sentence in her case.
“It's crazy out here these days, she said of Baltimore’s violence. “I don’t trust other people.”
The Baltimore Police Department points to other cases in urging passage of the new ordinance. In the past year and a half, police say, 60 percent of 605 convicted gun offenders had more than half their sentence suspended by a judge. More than 100 people were arrested at least twice on handgun charges during that time; seven people were arrested three times, according to police.
The reasons for the suspended sentences vary, but in many cases they are a result of deals cut by prosecutors with defense attorneys — and ultimately agreed to by judges.
For example, a first-time gun offender, Ivan Johnson, 20, was given a suspended sentence as part of a deal with prosecutors last July. Before accepting the deal, District Judge C. Yvonne Holt-Stone asked the West Baltimore man what he did for a living. His response was straightforward: “Sell drugs.”
Holt-Stone sighed. “What are we going to do to get you out of that life?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. Johnson told her his dream of becoming a basketball star was ruined when he’d been shot in the back after high school. He now had a baby on the way.
The judge ordered him to enroll in job training. “I guarantee you if you continue doing what you’re doing, I’ll see you again,” she said.
The judge’s warning proved prescient. Just two months later, Johnson was back in jail, accused of armed robbery and first-degree murder. He awaits a trial. Prosecutors say they originally sought an 18-month sentence in the case.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says the case shows that a broken criminal justice system treats gun offenses too lightly. In 2016, 245 people convicted in gun cases in Baltimore were sentenced to less than a year in jail, according to data on convictions shared by police. That’s 43 percent of all cases. Defendants in 33 cases were sentenced to no jail time at all.
With Baltimore's murder rate at a record high this year, Mayor Catherine Pugh, Davis and leaders on the City Council are pushing a bill that would 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. A council committee plans a hearing on the measure Tuesday.
The bill would bar judges from suspending the sentence, a provision supporters say is necessary to prevent judges from sending gun offenders back to the streets quickly.
“We’re dealing with a guy who, if he was serving a mandatory minimum, wouldn’t have been involved in a robbery or a murder,” TJ Smith, the police spokesman, said of Johnson.
“People get these little slaps on the wrist and they’re right back out murdering your son or your nephew,” said City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
Other first-time offenders have not been arrested again, The Sun’s review found. They include these cases that resulted in sentences of between 2 days and 90 days in jail include.:
- A truck driver passing through Baltimore on Interstate 95 was pulled over for making an unsafe lane change and charged after telling officers he had a gun in the vehicle.
- A 26-year-old manager at an optometrist’s office was arrested when police coming to his aid after a serious car accident found that he had a gun.
- A 35-year-old father of two was arrested after running away when police approached him and other men standing near Oswego Mall in Park Heights.
Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, an opponent of the mandatory-sentencing measure, says otherwise law-abiding people in Baltimore are carrying guns to protect themselves.
When Burnett appeared on a local radio show to discuss the issue recently, he said a caller used a saying that compares jurors and pallbearers: “I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.”
“I've heard it from other folks, that’s their perspective,” Burnett said.
Opponents of the measure say imposing mandatory sentences – the bill would require a $1,000 fine on top of jail time – would not be effective and would result in people being unfairly treated, especially if they are black.
Kirsten Gettys Downs, chief attorney in the Baltimore public defender’s office, said mandatory sentences undermine the goal of people being treated as individuals by the justice system.
“We are definitely opposed to anything that supports mass incarceration,” she said. "Our goal is for everyone to be individually judged fairly.”
Nevertheless, crime remains high and it’s an urgent concern for many in Baltimore. Through mid-July, more than 500 people have been shot this year in the city. Gun arrests are down 31 percent.
Loretta Blackledge, whose son was killed in 2006, is among a group of mothers who have lost children to gun violence and are advocating for the bill’s passage.
“If you haven’t walked in our shoes, you don’t know the pain we have,” she said. “Every time you turn the news on, you see people, children, getting killed…. We’re sick and tired of this gun violence and something needs to be done.”
Even as supporters have been pitching the bill as an important stiffening of the city’s gun laws, the mayor’s office stresses that prosecutors would retain discretion on whether to charge those arrested and put them on trial. Passing the bill would not amount to the adoption of a zero tolerance policy, the mayor and other supporters say.
State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s office would still get to decide whether it was appropriate to pursue a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence, and could opt to drop it or pursue different charges. Supporters argue the bill merely gives prosecutors one more tool.
“What we’re trying to do is educate people that if you make this choice, and you are in fact convicted, then you will go to jail,” said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Pugh. “We do recognize that is not a cut-and-dried issue. We're still talking about human beings, we're still talking about families. We really have to balance our message."
Mosby said that if the bill passes, she would use her “discretion to go after violent repeat offenders.”
Maryland already has a battery of gun charges on the books.
Illegally possessing a firearm carries a penalty of up to three years in prison for a first offense. A second offense carries a mandatory minimum punishment of one year and allows a sentence of up to 10 years. A third offense carries a minimum term of three years.
If the gun is used in a crime of violence, the law states the sentence must be at least five years without the possibility of parole.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda Heard says people are confused if they think judges are being soft on crime by entering into plea negotiations. A 2015 ruling of the state’s highest court instructed judges to refrain from negotiating plea deals.
“The plea bargain, the offer, is not coming from the judge. That’s a misconception,” she said.
Unlike police and prosecutors, many of whom don’t live in Baltimore, all of the judges hearing the cases live in the city, she emphasized.
“When you look at the judges as the reason we have such a high crime rate, I don’t know that that is accurate,” Heard said. “If we all point fingers at one another, there’s only one segment of the community that wins and those are the folks committing the crimes. But if we work together, and say we’ve had enough … the criminals need to watch out.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.