Last Thursday, Gov. Larry Hogan called a news conference on violent crime in Baltimore. In a room where clapping, head-nodding supporters outnumbered journalists about 10-to-1, he lambasted lawmakers for not approving his “crime plan” including the Violent Firearms Offender Act, trotting out polling data that suggests Marylanders want to see criminals behind bars longer. Gone was the governor’s trademark jocularity. He was angry, and he was energized, with visual aids that included a tally of Baltimore shootings since the Maryland General Assembly convened. The governor called his proposals, centered on higher mandatory minimum sentences, the most important matter before the Maryland General Assembly and scoffed at education reform being characterized as a “matter of life and death.” He even reiterated his pointed critique that the chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee should step down for his “disgraceful” position against those mandatory minimum sentences and suggested the crime bills be treated as “emergency” legislation.
There was only one thing wrong with Mr. Hogan’s impassioned pleas — they rang false. Not completely hollow, mind you. No doubt the governor actually supports tougher mandatory minimums that take sentencing decisions out of the hands of judges. But it’s mind-boggling to believe that anyone looking at Baltimore’s recent violent crime woes blames it all on sentencing decisions (hint: you first have to catch and convict perpetrators before deciding how many years they spend behind bars). Worse, the press conference appears to be the governor’s only personal commitment to his legislation. He not only declined to testify before the same committee whose chair he finds unfit, he hasn’t bothered to pick up a telephone and actually talk to the speaker of the House of Delegates. That’s right. As of Friday, Del. Adrienne A. Jones hasn’t had a meeting with Governor Hogan since the session started to talk about any topic, let alone city crime.
This isn’t aberrant behavior in Annapolis. Political posturing often comes with the territory, no matter the political party. But there’s something grating about watching a highly popular governor of a prosperous state in a position to do something meaningful to help Baltimore reduce its homicide rate choose to follow this oh-so-familiar path. It’s easy to call for longer prison sentences. That this polls well isn’t new. We support locking up “violent offenders who commit crimes with guns,” too. The city is not teeming with people asking that convicted killers walk the streets. But what Baltimore needs is to have fewer shootings in the first place. That requires attacking the root causes of the problem from drug and alcohol abuse to untreated mental illness to lack of economic opportunity, systemic racism, child abuse, a painful history of corruption and incompetence in local government and, yes, city schools ill-equipped to deal with young people damaged by all these problems and too-available guns. If the solution to violent crime was so simple to involve merely rewriting a few passages in state law, it would have been fixed years ago. But it isn’t. That’s why the governor’s anti-Red Line, anti-State Center (and perhaps soon anti-Kirwan) actions that have done so much harm to Baltimore’s economy more than off-set any possible good posed by mandatory minimum sentences (assuming perpetrators are caught and convicted and then we wait 10 years or so to see if that helped). But, alas, they don’t poll as well.
A leader serious about dealing with Baltimore’s myriad problems, the complex tapestry behind its homicide crisis, wouldn’t be preaching from on high. He would be sitting in Speaker Jones’ waiting room. He would be inviting her and Senate President Bill Ferguson to some kind of crime summit. He would be taking Senator William C. Smith Jr. up on his offer to chat with his committee, whether by testifying or just by meeting with individual lawmakers. And it wouldn’t hurt to be talking to Baltimore’s delegation, too. In short, he would be looking for common ground. That’s hard work. That might require actual compromise. That would take a lot more than 20 minutes in front of the television cameras flogging mandatory minimums in a bill that was virtually dead-on-arrival whether labeled “emergency” or not.
So, please, Governor Hogan, spare us the body count graphics and the polling data suggesting people hate murderers. Everyone hates murderers. What we need is help. We need a partner. We need someone on the second floor of the State House who understands our plight, not someone keen on making political hay about it. There’s still time for that person to be you.