A sweeping crime bill that passed the Maryland Senate with Gov. Larry Hogan's support is being attacked by critics who call it an election year ploy tainted by racially biased sentencing proposals.
The legislation, driven in large part by concern over Baltimore’s record-setting 343 homicides last year, faces resistance in the House of Delegates despite the Republican governor’s outspoken support.
“We cannot afford to stand by while people are being shot and killed on our streets,” the Republican governor said at a news conference this week.
The Senate legislation was crafted by Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Bobby Zirkin. It brings together a lengthy list of proposals ranging from longer prison sentences for repeat gun offenders to expanded funding for violence prevention initiatives.
The Baltimore County Democrat said violent crime demands a comprehensive solution. His Senate bill combines elements of many different legislative measures, including proposals Hogan announced in Baltimore last year.
“The best approach is to wrap together a package of legislation that will help move the needle forward,” Zirkin said. “Three hundred forty-three murders and more than double that of nonfatal shootings [in 2017], that’s more than outrageous.”
But a powerful House committee chairman said Tuesday that he has misgivings about the Senate’s strategy. Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George’s County Democrat, said he prefers the House’s approach of passing multiple bills dealing with different aspects of the crime problem.
The split between the House and Senate committees could make it more difficult for the two chambers to agree on a response to Baltimore’s high homicide rate before the General Assembly adjourns April 9.
Zirkin’s legislation also attracted opposition from critics who say it could undo previous legislative efforts to reform criminal sentencing to reduce mass incarceration.
In statements posted on its website, Progressive Maryland called the bill “racially biased” and an example of “racially bigoted injustice.”
“We have no time for apathy in the face of genocide,” the group stated. It added that the legislation will perpetuate mass incarceration of black men and does not do enough to combat police misconduct.
Zirkin called the group’s words “dangerous” and “disgusting.” Zirkin, who is Jewish, particularly objected to the group’s use of the word “genocide,” saying many of his relatives died in the Holocaust. He refused to name Progressive Maryland on the floor of the Senate, comparing the group to “a speck of lint on your shoulder.”
“Apparently if you want to put repeat violent offenders in jail, that makes you a bigot,” he said.
Sens. C. Anthony Muse and William C. Smith Jr., who are both African American members of Zirkin’s committee, defended the chairman and the crime bill.
Smith, a Democrat and the first black person to represent Montgomery County in the Senate, said he was “deeply offended” by the group’s statement. And Muse said that while he is wary of putting more black men in jail, he thinks the bill is fair and necessary to combat crime.
“I really take tough stands against mass incarceration, especially as it relates to African-Americans, and I looked at this bill through those eyes,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said. “There are some people who belong in jail whether we like it or not.”
Caryn York, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, said increased sentences recommended in Zirkin’s bill were not based on scientific data but were a knee-jerk reaction to the homicide rate in Baltimore and a desire “to do something in an election year.”
“I am waiting for the day when somebody can convince me our prison system is rehabilitative in nature,” York said. “When that happens, I can support sentence enhancements.”
Zirkin faced sharp questioning from delegates at a hearing Tuesday about what evidence he had that higher sentences of as much as 40 years actually deter crime.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, vice chairman of the judiciary committee, compared the Senate bill unfavorably to the Justice Reinvestment Act that she and Zirkin worked on when it passed two years ago. The Montgomery County Democrat said that effort to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent crimes was based on extensive evidence. She said the current bill is not.
“Where we disagree is whether the solution is simply to incarcerate people,” Dumais said. “I have grave concerns about seeing 40 years on some of these things.”
Zirkin also raised questions about how offenders would be affected by his bill. He said court statistics showed that not a single person was convicted in Baltimore last year of a repeat gun possession while drug trafficking — one of the offenses for which the maximum sentence would increase to 40 years. Such figures, he said, suggest the bill would not lead to mass incarceration.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said the bill would prevent crimes by keeping the most dangerous repeat criminals in prison longer.
“It’s a group who were causing the most havoc,” he said.
In addition to longer prison sentences for repeat violent offenders, the bill addresses a wide range of other issues. It would ease rules for prosecutors trying to get evidence admitted at trial in gun cases and allow them to seek wiretaps in cases involving firearms. It would make it easier for prosecutors to charge sellers of fentanyl, a drug linked to soaring fatal overdose rates, as high-volume dealers.
The legislation also calls for more than $40 million in increased spending on anti-crime programs, including Baltimore’s Safe Streets violence prevention program, over four years.
A separate bill on crime that passed the House Tuesday by a 130-5 vote was introduced by Del. Talmadge Branch. The Baltimore Democrat’s measure calls for barring judges from suspending the mandatory minimum sentences that repeat offenders are supposed to face when convicted of carrying loaded handguns.
Branch’s bill is a departure from Zirkin’s bill, which dropped Hogan’s proposed increases to mandatory minimum sentences in favor of higher maximum sentences for repeat gun-related offenses. Zirkin said judges should retain discretion in sentencing, but Branch said Baltimore judges have been letting people out who should be incarcerated.
Branch’s emphasis on mandatory minimums runs counter to criminal justice reform advocates who oppose mass incarceration. But Branch — whose grandson, Tyrone Gray, was killed in a Labor Day shooting last year in Baltimore — said he’s not backing down.
“I lost a grandson,” he said. “This is not a situation where you want to play around.
“People with handguns,” he added. “You want to get them off the street.”
While Zirkin’s bill passed the Senate by a solid 36-8 margin, it performed weakly among Baltimore’s delegation. Four of the six senators who represent the city voted “no.”
One of those senators, Nathaniel J. McFadden, said he had problems with some of the sentencing provisions. But he expressed confidence the House would make positive changes.
“When it comes back, it’s going to pass and it’s going to pass with my support,” McFadden said.