Getting tough on gun offenders

Our view: Mandatory minimums for illegal gun possession are intuitively attractive, but Baltimore needs to do some careful research before moving forward

The reasoning behind Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis’ push for enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for gun offenders has intuitive appeal. The more people carry guns on the streets of Baltimore, the more likely it is for any confrontation to turn deadly. But given the level of violence in the city, many of those who are connected with the drug trade, or who merely live in high-crime areas, may believe they need to carry guns to protect themselves. The penalties for carrying an illegal gun are relatively minor, and most of those who are convicted of the offense are given suspended sentences, so Commissioner Davis argues, a cost-benefit analysis leads too many people to conclude that the potential consequences of not carrying a gun are much greater than those of being armed.

But do the data really bear that out? Before the Baltimore City Council moves forward with a proposal for mandatory one-year minimum sentences for gun offenders caught within 100 yards of a school, park, church, public building or other public place of assembly — which is to say, virtually everywhere in Baltimore — we need a careful discussion of how much difference such a law might make in comparison to its potential costs.

A few states have mandatory minimum sentences for illegal gun possession, some of which have been in place for decades, but there is little research demonstrating a strong link between them and reduced violent crime. A 2013 federal study of strategies for reducing handgun violence found that “results of research on the effectiveness of prosecutorial interventions such as enhanced sentencing are weak.” Assorted other interventions, from restricting alcohol sales to community-based anti-violence programs, were found to be more effective. It’s worth noting that just a few years ago, Baltimore experienced modern-day lows in homicides without enhanced illegal gun possession penalties, and nothing about those laws changed to lead us to our current crisis.

Meanwhile, the disparate impact of mandatory minimum sentences on minorities and the poor is clear. Proponents of mandatory minimums often make the argument that they remove the potential for bias from charging and sentencing decisions, but the reality of policing in poor, minority communities compared to wealthier, white ones leads inevitability to a disparate outcome. Furthermore, researchers have found that prosecutors tend to charge black defendants with crimes that lead to mandatory minimums more often than they do whites.

That’s not to say that Baltimore shouldn’t move forward with this legislation, or that state lawmakers shouldn’t pursue a more comprehensive version. Most of the mandatory minimum sentence laws that have been rightly blamed for swelling prison populations to little purpose are related to drug crimes or to overly harsh three-strikes statutes. It would not be inherently inconsistent for the city or state to create mandatory minimum penalties for carrying illegal guns that fuel our violence epidemic while rolling them back for offenses that don’t similarly impact public safety.

But we do need to have a realistic understanding of the potential impact of such a law. The limited body of research on the effectiveness of mandatory minimums for illegal gun possession may or may not speak to the specifics of what’s going on in Baltimore. Critics of such policies note, for example, that most of New York City’s reduction in violence came before a 2006 law increasing mandatory minimums for possessing an illegal, loaded gun to 3 ½ years and an accompanying public education campaign. But New York’s penalty before then was still much stricter than what Maryland has now.

Commissioner Davis has frequently repeated the statistic that since the start of 2016, 60 percent of gun offenders in Baltimore have had more than half of their sentences suspended. But to understand the impact of eliminating judges’ discretion in such cases, we need to dig deeper. Who are the people who are getting off without much if any jail time? What are their criminal records? How many of them committed acts of violence after being treated leniently? If this law amounts to a well targeted tool for keeping those at high risk of committing violence off the streets, that’s one thing. If it warehouses in prison people who might otherwise be rehabilitated, that’s something else entirely. The commissioner’s office last week provided a spreadsheet of the cases in question, but it begs for more research.

Fundamentally, though, we need to make sure the debate over this policy doesn’t overshadow the need to develop, articulate and execute a comprehensive crime fighting strategy. The recent back-and-forth between Mayor Catherine Pugh and Councilman Brandon Scott over his demand for her administration to present a coordinated, multi-agency approach to reducing violence illustrates just how easily that could happen. The situation is far too dire to allow that. This debate needs to be about policy, not politics and personality. If mandatory minimums for illegal gun possession can help drive down crime without creating even greater problems, let’s move forward. If not, let’s move on.

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