Maryland crime bill heads in the right direction, but is it far enough?

The massive and controversial anti-crime legislation that passed the state Senate this year is getting what it needed in the House of Delegates — a big time-out so advocates on all sides of the issue can sort through its implications and give their input. The House Judiciary Committee held a marathon hearing on the bill and multiple work sessions, something that didn’t happen in the Senate, where the legislation was cobbled together from multiple other proposals. That’s good, but the bill hasn’t gotten any simpler in the House, as more ideas keep getting lumped into a bill that already mixed stiffer potential penalties for certain crimes, new funding for a wide variety of anti-violence initiatives, changes to rules for wiretaps and new avenues for prosecutors to appeal unfavorable evidentiary rulings, among other things. The House committee has softened many elements of the bill and removed others altogether, but not enough to erase the controversy. The Legislative Black Caucus does not support it, and critics say it still represents a return to discredited tough on crime approaches that will disproportionately affect minorities.

The Senate bill’s chief architect, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a Baltimore County Democrat, pushes back on allegations that the legislation runs counter to the landmark Justice Reinvestment Act of 2016. That effort was focused on reducing incarceration for people convicted of non-violent crimes, he says, whereas the enhanced penalties in Senate Bill 122 are related to violent crimes, and particularly to those involving guns and repeat offenders. That is true. However, the broader point of the JRA was to use data to determine what sentencing (and parole and probation) practices were increasing public safety and which were not; to lessen low-yield punishments; and to reinvest the savings in programs that are proven to reduce crime and recidivism. SB 122 contains a number of worthy investments in evidence-based anti-violence initiatives, like Baltimore’s Safe Streets program, but there is reason to question the effectiveness of its enhanced penalties.

The version of the bill that passed the Senate increases the maximum penalties for crimes like wearing or carrying a firearm in connection with drug trafficking or use of a firearm in committing an act of violence or a felony, in some instances doubling the maximum sentence to as much as 40 years. The bill particularly ramps up penalties for second or subsequent offenses (including increased mandatory minimum sentences in a few cases). These are mainly charges that are tacked onto those for violent felonies — murder, assault, robbery, carjacking, etc. — and the real world effect would probably be for prosecutors to increase the pressure on defendants to agree to more severe plea deals. However, there’s no reason to assume that judges would uniformly take advantage of the additional sentencing power. Perhaps it would have some effect as a signal from the legislative branch that gun crimes should be punished more severely, but Gov. Larry Hogan has already sent that message quite clearly. The House Judiciary Committee rejected many of those ideas, but it still does enhance penalties for certain offenses.

If the point of this exercise is to address the current epidemic of violent crime in Baltimore, lawmakers need to consider what the relationship is between sentencing and crime deterrence or prevention. A 2016 National Institute of Justice publication synthesizing research on that question found little if any correlation between long sentences and crime deterrence. A would-be criminal probably has no idea whether the maximum penalty for a second offense of carrying a handgun is. Putting criminals behind bars for a longer period of time might prevent them from committing future crimes for a longer period of time by virtue of their being removed from society, but that doesn’t change anything with respect to Baltimore’s current crime problems and may create new ones years later if today’s criminals return from prison with no viable economic future. And spending more to keep people locked up for longer could erase the very savings the Justice Reinvestment Act was designed to steer toward programs that would provide them with one.

The political reality is this: In an election year, legislators — particularly those from Baltimore — will feel enormous pressure to vote for something that addresses the city’s high rate of violent crime. There are a number of good elements to this bill, and members of the House have taken steps already to scale back some of those that have caused concerns. As they continue to deliberate, we urge them to continue in the spirit of the JRA — follow the data and invest the state’s resources where they do good, not just where they sound good.

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