Hogan: Crime bill strikes the right balance

The facts are jarring. Three hundred and forty three people were murdered in Baltimore City last year, and many of the city’s most violent, repeat offenders will not serve significant time behind bars.

The criminal justice issues we are confronting in Baltimore City did not happen overnight and will not be solved overnight. Over the past several decades, city and state leaders pursued misguided policies that resulted in the indiscriminate arrests and mass incarceration of African Americans, often for minor offenses. This approach was as ineffective as it was morally wrong.

As a result, two years ago, my administration worked together with legislators from both political parties to pass and sign into law the most significant criminal justice reform in a generation: the Justice Reinvestment Act. This landmark law gives nonviolent offenders, often facing mental health or substance use issues, the opportunity to get treatment and a second chance.

However, the individuals committing murders in Baltimore City and across Maryland have been arrested — on average — nine previous occasions. Preventing them from terrorizing our communities requires a targeted approach that goes after the most violent repeat offenders and ensures they pay for their crimes.

Our answer to the senseless and tragic violence in Baltimore must strike an important balance between taking immediate action to remove violent offenders from our streets and enacting policies that will improve the safety of our communities for months and years into the future. The Comprehensive Crime Act of 2018, which was passed by the Maryland Senate by wide bipartisan margins last week, does just that.

I believe in second chances, but we can no longer allow repeat offenders to commit violent acts with impunity. Eighty-six percent of the homicides in Baltimore City last year were committed with a firearm; our criminal justice system needs the tools to immediately take these dangerous criminals out of our communities. To do this, the Comprehensive Crime Act of 2018 increases sentences for repeat, violent offenders, particularly those who use firearms to commit violent crimes. It also strengthens penalties for the use of a firearm in connection to drug trafficking, witness intimidation, and obstruction of justice. The proposed legislation empowers law enforcement to close these cases by expanding their current wiretap authority to include firearm trafficking investigations.

We can never forget that every violent crime has a victim, and their voices must be heard. This bipartisan legislation requires repeat violent offenders — those who have violently victimized the community more than once — to serve their full sentence by making them ineligible for parole. It also puts a stop to the disgraceful practice of placing violent offenders in low-security treatment beds and letting them back on the streets long before they would be otherwise released.

To target the systemic causes of crime, the Comprehensive Crime Act makes transformational, multi-year investments in programs aimed at addressing violent crime in Baltimore and across our state. Over the next four years, the legislation provides more than $40 million in state funding to support programs including the Baltimore City Safe Streets initiative, victim and witness relocation and protection programs, and police-youth relationship building initiatives. Finally, the legislation creates the Tyrone Ray Violent Crime Fund, a $5 million fund which will support evidence-based programs aimed at reducing violence in areas of the state that have experienced dramatic increases in violent crime.

The bill is now being debated in the Maryland House of Delegates. It is vital that both chambers — and both sides of the aisle — work together to maintain this balanced approach. The proposed legislation contains ideas from leaders of both political parties that represent a comprehensive, bipartisan solution to the challenge posed by violent crime. It shouldn’t matter which side of the aisle an idea comes from as long as it’s a good one; this bill reflects that common sense approach.

Maryland has a proud history of bipartisanship when it comes to criminal justice reform. We worked together to enact the Justice Reinvestment Act, which transformed the criminal justice system by providing drug treatment to more nonviolent offenders, reducing our prison population, and offering second chances for those re-entering society. Now, it’s time to work together to pass meaningful legislation to protect our communities from violent crime and ensure that those who commit heinous acts are brought to justice.

Larry Hogan, a Republican, is Maryland’s governor. Twitter: @GovLarryHogan.

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