Zirkin wrongly supports mandatory minimum sentencing

In 2015, the Justice Reinvestment Act was a piece of legislation that aimed to address some of the harm that the Maryland criminal justice system has had on people of color (“Annapolis needs to take a time-out on Hogan-Zirkin crime bill,” March 6). While there were many people who pushed forward the effort in the name of social justice, an underlying economic argument was also made to bring along folks that tend to be more conservative. While the appeal to the economic argument helped to make the measure a success, the unintended consequences of it are that legislators use their support of the bill to frame themselves as having a genuine commitment to social justice.

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat who represents Baltimore County, chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He has developed a “bipartisan” comprehensive crime bill that takes pieces of Gov. Larry Hogan’s previously introduced crime package, which are reminiscent of the “tough on crime” approaches that actually created the need for the Justice Reinvestment Act and funding for community based anti-violence programs. The most problematic aspect of Senator Zirkin’s bill is that it backdoors in mandatory minimum sentences, which increase from five years to ten years in some cases. Mandatory minimums require a judge to sentence someone with a minimum sentence — it removes the judge’s ability to tailor a sentence to the individual defendant in front of them. Mandatory minimum sentences are a big part of what the 2015 legislation was attempting to reverse. Eighty-five percent of those who are incarcerated under a mandatory minimum sentence in Maryland are black. Regardless of what Senator Zirkin says his intentions are, this bill does increase mandatory minimums and it will be implemented in ways that disproportionately hurt people of color.

This crime bill is also problematic, particularly in light of the prosecution of the Gun Trace Task Force in Baltimore, which exposed how police were engaged in planting drugs and guns on innocent people. Anyone who supports Senator Zirkin’s bill, who aligns themselves to the issue of crime, should also have to speak to the distrust that exists among the public who believe that the police will just see this legislation as license to engage in the kind of abusive tactics that were characteristic of the task force.

Senator Zirkin is using the aspect of the bill that funds a community based anti-violence programs, Safe Streets, to justify the notion that his bill is “holistic.” We do not need more mandatory minimums. We need a more competent police force that has civilian oversight and we need more investment in community-based anti-violence programs with no strings attached. We must stop Senator Zirkin’s “tough on crime” bill — it is a mass incarceration tactic masquerading as being holistic. We must stop SB 122.

Dayvon Love, Baltimore

The writer is director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

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