After losing her son to Baltimore gun violence in 2017, Maryland House Del. Chanel Branch experienced some closure when police announced two arrests in the case. But then more questions troubled her: Who were these young men, and why did they turn to violence?
One of them, Raekwon Thornton, had pleaded guilty to a handgun charge several months before the deadly Labor Day shooting that unfolded outside a 7-Eleven in Northeast Baltimore’s Belair-Edison neighborhood. He had been released from home supervision just three weeks earlier.
Branch wonders whether a different outcome in that case might have saved her son’s life.
So she’s pursuing legislation that would establish a specialized gun court in Baltimore to expedite some firearm cases and, when appropriate, offer resources and support services instead of incarceration.
As with drug courts, the goal would be court-ordered intervention to push defendants toward a different path and break the cycle of escalating violence before tragedy occurs, Branch said. But the expedited docket also would mean faster accountability for repeat offenders and others the court believes pose a risk to public safety.
“I want to make sure my son didn’t die in vain. That’s why I do this work,” Branch said. “And that’s why I want to keep the conversation going and work really hard on getting this right.”
A handful of other cities have implemented gun courts, though the structure remains relatively rare. And while both local and statewide officials have engaged in recent discussions about starting one in Baltimore, the proposal probably won’t become reality anytime soon.
Branch, who recently filed a House bill outlining the proposal, said she expects discussions to continue into the 2023 state legislative session.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore City Council’s Public Safety Committee discussed the idea at a hearing last week. The hearing came several months after Councilman Robert Stokes introduced a similar resolution before the full council, which he said failed to garner much interest among his colleagues.
He said expediting gun cases has become especially important during the pandemic because of court closures resulting in widespread delays. With court dates repeatedly getting pushed back, Stokes said, “those persons are still out on the street robbing, shooting and killing people.”
In addition to moving cases along more quickly, he said, a gun court would yield more sophisticated data on gun crimes, make sentencing more consistent and — if implemented correctly — deter defendants from committing similar crimes in the future.
While officials seemed to agree on the goals, some raised concerns about the challenges to establishing a system that would make sense and run smoothly.
Jan Bledsoe, chief deputy in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, said one complicating factor would be weeding out which cases get routed through gun court — for example, would an alleged armed robber be sent there if his crime involved a firearm?
“One of the nuances about gun cases is: How does the gun charge fit in with the entire case?” Bledsoe said, noting that officials could choose to focus a specialized docket on lower-level firearm offenses rather than more serious violent crimes.
Regardless of the decision, she said, officials would have to establish clearly defined boundaries to avoid confusion.
Several Baltimore Police Department leaders spoke during the council hearing, offering information about how the department currently handles gun cases and tracks data about such defendants. But they didn’t express support or opposition for the proposal itself.
Michelle Wirzberger, the department’s director of government affairs, thanked Stokes for thinking outside the box to address Baltimore gun violence.
According to a memo from the mayor’s office to the Public Safety Committee, local officials have met with gun court administrators in New York and Philadelphia — conversations that highlighted “both the great promise and challenges of establishing and operating a gun court.” The memo says discussions will continue among members of the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a panel Mayor Brandon Scott restarted last year that includes city, state and federal agencies and seeks to address systemic problems affecting criminal justice in the city.
Meanwhile, a work group focused on backlogs in the courts is “exploring the feasibility of establishing a gun court in hopes of increasing the swiftness and certainty of holding gun offenders accountable,” according to the memo.
In Philadelphia, city leaders established a gun court in 2005 that focused on nonviolent cases involving illegal gun possession. The program included 20 probation officers tasked with providing intensive supervision of gun court defendants.
When it was disbanded in 2011 for lack of funding, no data existed to demonstrate whether the program had a quantifiable impact on gun violence, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, though a limited study after the first 18 months showed gun court defendants were less likely to get rearrested than their counterparts prosecuted in other courtrooms.
The program was relaunched last year — partly in response to COVID delays throughout the court system — and this time with an expanded docket that includes more serious charges such as burglaries and robberies involving guns.
In New York, leaders launched a gun court pilot program in Brooklyn in 2016. That program has drawn criticism from some who argue it disproportionately punishes young Black men, many with minimal criminal records, by imposing harsher sentences for illegal gun possession.
“An initiative that sounded like a targeted attack on America’s gun problem looked up-close more like stop-and-frisk or the war on drugs,” wrote Emily Bazelon, a journalist and senior research fellow at Yale Law School whose book “Charged” focuses on the Brooklyn gun court.
But Daniel Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, said he’s generally been impressed with the Brooklyn program, which provides intensive support services to participants, including mentorship and job opportunities. However, he said, researchers are still collecting data to shed more light on its impacts over the past several years.
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Webster said he believes a Baltimore gun court would be a positive addition to the local criminal justice landscape. He emphasized the importance of doing it right — including making sure police are being focused and thorough in their investigations, not indiscriminately stopping and searching people for guns. The goal of a gun court should not be more convictions, he said.
But one significant benefit could be more scrutiny given to gun possession cases in Baltimore since specialized prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges would handle and track them, he said. Ideally, that oversight would correct sloppy police work and unconstitutional law enforcement practices.
“More than ever in Baltimore, the public needs to be able to trust the system,” Webster said. “If you have a court and a process that really act as a quality control mechanism with appropriate transparency and accountability, I think we will have better outcomes all around.”
Some supporters of the proposal compared it to drug court, a more common system that typically offers rehab instead of incarceration for people arrested on drug possession or other minor charges.
“Gun possession is a serious offense, but in general, we probably overuse prison and underuse other kinds of interventions in these cases,” Webster said. “I think we need to do more than just have an open jail cell for people caught with a gun.”
Marlo Hargrove Sr., founder and CEO of the Baltimore-based prisoner reentry program FACE, said an opportunity to choose drug treatment over jail changed the course of his life. He said a similar program for gun crimes could make a real difference, as long as the resources being offered to people are structured, reliable and effective.
“It’s a matter of rehabilitating people, helping them get their life on track,” he said. “The accountability piece is big — if you get caught with a gun, there will be penalties. But absolutely, it’s possible to intervene early on and break these vicious cycles.”