Longer sentences urged in loaded-weapon cases

The Baltimore Sun

Mayor Sheila Dixon pointed to the killing of a former city councilman as Exhibit A why someone caught with an illegal, loaded handgun should be imprisoned longer, a proposal she pushed Wednesday in the state capital.

Just a month before Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was shot to death last fall outside a popular jazz club in Northeast Baltimore, a 20-year-old charged in the killing was sentenced to the 85 days he had spent in jail for carrying a loaded weapon in Baltimore County.

"When you're out in a matter of days or weeks, what kind of message is that sending to them?" Dixon said in an interview this week. "They're just slapped on the hand."

In the wake of Harris' killing, Dixon told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday, she asked aides to develop legislation to keep criminals who carry loaded guns behind bars longer. She backs a proposal that would set a mandatory 18-month minimum sentence for a person illegally possessing or carrying a loaded handgun or assault weapon.

The law now sets no minimum but has a maximum penalty of five years in prison, regardless of whether the weapon is loaded. Judges often sentence gun offenders to time served or suspended prison time. Baltimore District Court judges suspend 86 percent of all prison time they give to gun offenders, according to statistics culled from Baltimore's gun offender registry.

Dixon and her aides say the arrest of a person carrying a loaded weapon should be viewed as the prevention of a violent crime such as armed robbery or homicide. Half of the city's homicide suspects have prior gun arrests, and about 40 percent of city defendants charged with gun crimes such as shootings and armed robberies have prior gun arrests, Dixon said.

Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said that if his committee approves the loaded-gun bill, he wants to name it after Harris, who he said was a friend.

Other senators had few questions for the mayor Wednesday. But several committee members, including Chairman Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, dislike mandatory sentences. Frosh and others have argued that judges should have discretion in sentencing.

Dixon's Annapolis agenda has been gaining traction this year. This week, lawmakers approved a proposal to give the mayor authority to fire her police commissioner at will - something county executives have long been able to do.

Dixon's proposal to eliminate "good time credits" for those convicted as a felon in possession of a firearm, which carries a mandatory penalty of five years without parole, awaits action by legislative committees. Her request that commissioners be prohibited from releasing convicted gun offenders on bail after they are arrested on new gun charges was unanimously approved by the full House last month, and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved it Tuesday night.

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