Congressional delegation calls Justice Department decision on crime fighting 'unconscionable'

Six members of Baltimore’s delegation to Congress on Friday questioned the Justice Department’s decision to withhold federal crime fighting assistance unless the city cooperates with the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement efforts.

Calling the Justice Department’s announcement “unconscionable,” the six lawmakers — all Democrats — noted that the State of Maryland sets immigration policy at Baltimore’s jail, not City Hall. The lawmakers also argued that immigration enforcement is a federal issue, not a local matter.

“We find it unconscionable that the Justice Department would threaten Baltimore and other cities, and not expeditiously bring to bear all of the federal government’s resources to reduce violent crime,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter was signed by Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, John Sarbanes and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

At issue is whether the state will honor voluntary requests from the federal government to hold immigrants in jail beyond their scheduled release date so that federal agents can pick those people up for deportation, if they choose.

The Maryland Attorney General has advised jurisdictions in the state not to honor those requests without a warrant.

In its letter Thursday, the Justice Department demanded that Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration explain its position on the detainer requests. But it is actually Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration that sets the policy for the Baltimore city jail.

Hogan’s policy has been inconsistent, unclear and unwritten for the better part of a year. At first, the administration said it would not honor detainers absent a judicially signed warrant. Then Hogan himself indicated the jail would hold immigrations for up to 48 hours, breaking with the earlier position taken by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the public safety department said the agency would consider the requests on a “case-by-case” basis — ut offered no clarity on what factors would go into that decision. The agency said in its statement that it had not received a request to hold an immigrant beyond their release since 2015.

What the state — and others — have ostensibly not been willing to do is hold an immigrant in a cell without a pending criminal charge. But Maryland’s policy at the Baltimore jail does allow officials to alert Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents when they are about to release an immigrant.

All federal agents have to do is be at the jail when that person is released in order to pick them up.

Aside from the immigration issue, the Justice Department told Baltimore it would otherwise be a candidate for its new Public Safety Partnership program, because the city has a level of violence that exceeds the national average.

It’s not clear if Baltimore has asked to join the new partnership program, or what benefits that program would provide the city. The Justice Department has not fully explained how Public Safety Partnership is different from the federal-local cooperation that has been taking place in Baltimore for years.

A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The original Justice Department letter was sent to officials in Baltimore, Albuquerque, N.M., and San Bernardino and Stockton, Calif.

Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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