Md. legislation focuses on violent repeat offenders

Let these numbers sink in: 343 murders, 1,000-plus non-fatal shootings, one year: 2017. My friend’s family was a part of those statistics; his 5-year-old grandson was shot to death last year, just one of the 343. Let that number sink in too: 5 years old.

Now, look at just this month: 29 murders in three weeks of April 2018.

Baltimore is the most violent city in the entire nation — not exactly what we would like to be known for. This is an emergency of epic proportions.

Members of the General Assembly from both political parties, the governor’s office, the mayor’s office, police and state’s attorneys, business leaders and citizens simply tired of the violent crime came together during this year’s legislative session to create a real package of legislation to address the crisis. The work was complicated with a lot of give and take, and at the end of the legislative session, the entire basic package passed into law in some form.

In Baltimore City, the average murderer will have been charged and/or convicted nine times for various gun and drug offenses before taking another life, before creating one of last year’s 343 victims. The new legislation focused on such repeat violent offenders by enhancing potential prison sentences for individuals who repeatedly commit violent offenses, which include armed robbery, first degree sex offenses of a minor, rape, murder, arson and use of an illegal firearm during any of these. So, for example, an individual who is convicted of using a gun to sexually assault an 8-year-old would face greater jail time — as well they should.

The legislation also contained greater authority to use wiretaps in gun trafficking investigations; funding for programs such as Safe Streets, Law Enforcement Diversion and Outward Bound; increased opportunities for drug treatment and expungement for those putting their lives back together. The bill tackled drug trafficking of fentanyl, witness intimidation and witness protection services.

Some have argued that the legislation would somehow lead to “mass incarceration” which is absolutely false. Although it is a clever political line, nothing could be further from the truth. As the lead sponsor of legislation to decriminalize marijuana and a main driver of the Justice Reinvestment Act, which focused on treatment in lieu of incarceration for non-violent drug offenses, increasing prison population is obviously not something I would favor. The reality is that a small handful of individuals have the unique distinction of being convicted multiple times for violent crimes, and this group is creating a huge percentage of Baltimore’s murders. Is it really controversial to say that someone who is convicted three, four and five times of violent crimes belongs in prison? How about asking the families of the 343 murder victims what they think about that?

Tackling violent crime is not simple, and well-meaning people can come at the problem from different points of view. Some argue that we should focus on long-term solutions addressing poverty and education and job training; I agree. Some argue that we should focus on ensuring that individuals with addiction and mental health issues should be able to access treatment immediately; I absolutely agree. Some say that we should give second chances through expungement and look to decriminalize small, non-violent offenses such as possession of marijuana; I agree with that as well.

Over the past term, the legislature has worked on solutions to the massive crime problem by focusing attention on all of these strategies. And more must be done. But doing those things does not mean that we ignore violent crimes or the people who are conducting those crimes.

This session’s focus on the most violent criminals, in combination with other long term solutions, was appropriate and necessary. The violence that rages across our city is out of control, and it is essential that we continue to attack it from every angle, in a bipartisan manner, and without regard to party or politics. The families of the victims demand nothing less.

Bobby Zirkin is a state senator and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee; his email is Bobby.zirkin@senate.state.md.us.

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