With its crosshairs locked on Baltimore City, Gov. Larry Hogan's new strategic crime plan reeks of scary, 1980s type criminal justice tactics that have proven to be discriminatory toward African-Americans and generally ineffective. Several of the “highlights” of his strategy include: a new council on gangs and criminal networks comprised of prosecutors and police (with no advocates for defendants), new shared criminal intelligence collaborations, the use of various agencies to police Baltimore, additional parole and probation officers, aggressive warrant sweeps and — most troubling — new legislation to increase or add mandatory minimum sentences and assure that sentences are always served to their fullest extent.
This is old school, tough-on-crime rhetoric. Such talk incorporates typical shock-and-awe anecdotes to force legislative bodies to pass new, stiffer penalties. However, it's never backed by empirical data showing that heightened sentences or an increased law enforcement presence do anything more than lock more people up while creating an occupying force in certain neighborhoods. We need to be careful that the governor's plan isn't just a reactionary, do-something approach when Baltimore citizens' fundamental rights are at stake and more effective violence reduction strategies exist.
The proposed crime plan would take us in the opposite direction of last year's Maryland Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA). Justice reinvestment is a national movement that calls for decriminalization of minor offenses (like marijuana possession and some criminal traffic charges) and reductions in sentencing for many non-violent offenses in an effort to reduce incarceration. Maryland's JRA did three important things. First, it reduced penalties for possession of hard drugs (and made similar changes to theft laws). Second, it eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases. Third, it lessened the sting from minor probation infractions. These were progressive, long overdue moves that directly benefit the targets of the drug war — in Baltimore it's young black men — who are policed and prosecuted more heavily than other populations and who will be most negatively affected by the governor's plan.
Proponents of plans like his want to treat violent acts differently. But his plan won’t get the results they want.
Baltimore went through a mandatory sentencing debate this summer. Justice advocates successfully shut down a silly measure to tack a mandatory one-year sentence onto illegal handgun possession. Now, it seems like a similar argument will re-emerge come April in the legislature. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, mandatory sentencing doesn't work — for drug offenses or for violent offenses the same. Most defendants have so little an understanding of mandatory sentencing that any conceivable deterrent effect is immediately lost.
Heck, the general public and legislators don’t even realize that mandatories already exist for violent crimes, especially those involving guns. Did you know a typical armed robbery carries upward of 40 years in prison with mandatory time? A violent felon found in possession of a gun typically faces at least 18 years with mandatories. People don't stop picking up guns out of fear of jail time. They do it when they have alternatives to crime. We are talking jobs or just plain value in their lives. That's hard to understand for those of us with decent employment, health care and love at home.
In a New Yorker article last year about her cousin's tragic misfortune in the justice system, Harvard professor Danielle Allen so eloquently wrote, “Deterrence dehumanizes. It directs at the individual the full hatred that society understandably has for an aggregate phenomenon. But no individual should bear that kind responsibility.” Ms. Allen encapsulates the problems with inflexible, unforgiving criminal laws by reminding us that every person charged with a crime is different and every case has unique facts for judges to consider.
Governor Hogan's plan, coupled with the mandatory minimum handgun push, suggests that a tough-on-crime, one-size-fits-all approach to what they consider “violent offenses” is coming. But increased sentencing and new criminal laws aren't the answer to our city's violence. Rather, they are just an easy rallying cry for leaders who aren't willing to invest long-term in jobs, education and development in neighborhoods where crime is at its worst.
Todd Oppenheim is an attorney in felony trial division of the Baltimore City Public Defender's Office. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter- @Opp4Justice.