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Editorial

Fighting crime: The Maryland General Assembly must do more | COMMENTARY

A forensics expert documents and catalogs dozens of pieces of potential evidence beside a home on Ashland Avenue at the scene of heavy gunfire which left victims and tons of evidence in the shadow of Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins hospital complex Wednesday, March 30, 2022. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

When it comes to violent crime in Baltimore, April has so far proved to be as gloomy as the proceeding three months. Three people were killed and two others injured in multiple city shootings last Sunday alone, keeping the pace of homicides in 2022 ahead of last year. A 38-year-old Johns Hopkins acute care surgeon was shot during a carjacking on his way to work at 7 a.m. Friday morning. Shootings with multiple victims are up and so are robberies. Cars recklessly spinning out “doughnuts” to an audience at busy city intersections has apparently become a thing. The Baltimore Police Department has struggled to recruit new officers and remains understaffed by hundreds of positions.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and members of the Baltimore City Council have insisted that reducing violent crime remains their top priority. Gov. Larry Hogan has certainly made considerable political hay on the subject (calling it the “No. 1 concern of Marylanders”) as well — although often proving more forceful in his partisan criticisms of local leaders than in taking meaningful corrective action at the state level. Yet, in the Maryland General Assembly, efforts to date have been mostly directed at what is often termed a “holistic” approach to criminal justice, addressing the social ills that can worsen crime, including systemic racism, poverty, addiction and mental illness.

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Much of what has been accomplished in Annapolis so far on this front can be found in the state’s $58 billion annual operating budget with its added support for social programs and public education, most notably $800 million for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the sweeping K-12 education reform given final approval last year, despite Governor Hogan’s opposition. And lawmakers have also gone further in areas where there is broad agreement among Democrats such as their decision to ban “ghost” guns that are assembled from parts that allow purchasers to sidestep restrictions on gun ownership, a convenience for violent felons or other criminals seeking a weapon without an identifying serial number.

But, to put it mildly, this is not enough. A handful of Senate bills aimed some of the thornier public safety issues have so far languished in the House of Delegates. They include legislation to create a state firearms enforcement center within the Maryland State Police to track guns crimes statewide and makes theft of a handgun a felony, a compilation of data on sentencing in cases of violent crime with the information posted by judicial circuit (and not by individual judge as the Hogan administration had initially requested) through a data dashboard available to the public, and a greater transparency regarding the status of offenders supervised by the Division of Parole and Probation.

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The apparent hesitancy among House Democrats might have something to do with concerns over aggressive policing and racial bias in the criminal justice system, which has so often resulted in far harsher treatment for Black men than for others. Governor Hogan’s longtime push for mandatory minimum sentences remains a non-starter in both the House and Senate — and to us, as well. But given the seriousness of the city’s homicide problem with more than 300 fatalities recorded annually since 2015, it would seem perfectly reasonable to consider whether violent offenders are getting sufficient prison terms or whether parolees are not receiving proper supervision from the state. Not every defendant deserves early release. Sometimes, public safety requires that repeat violent offenders be kept under lock and key.

At the very least, Democrats ought to understand that public concerns over Baltimore’s continued high homicide rate are likely to influence voting this election year. Higher teacher salaries or a beefed up curriculum, while worthwhile on their own, are an insufficient response to the ongoing crime crisis. Why not, for example, approve legislation to allocate more money to allow police to serve arrest warrants in a timely manner? A backlog of arrest warrants was seen as a factor in the shooting death of the husband of a city police lieutenant in late January, the delay giving the defendant who was wanted in connection to an earlier armed robbery the opportunity to commit that homicide.

None of that argues against continuing to fight the good fight against social injustice, racism, substance abuse and all the rest. Just as Baltimore must prosecute criminal behavior by bad cops while supporting the work of honest, dedicated police officers, state lawmakers must recognize that the city needs to get tough on repeat violent offenders while continuing to address the underlying circumstances that contribute this plague of killings.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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