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Political talking points: good theater, bad crime strategy | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan arrives to greet Orioles fans outside of Pickles Pub before the Orioles opener on Thursday, April 8 against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards, the same day he lashed out at Mayor Brandon Scott on WBAL Radio and vetoed legislation that would take off the books a sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun).
Gov. Larry Hogan arrives to greet Orioles fans outside of Pickles Pub before the Orioles opener on Thursday, April 8 against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards, the same day he lashed out at Mayor Brandon Scott on WBAL Radio and vetoed legislation that would take off the books a sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun). (Ulysses Muñoz)

Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan appeared on one of the local media platforms preferred by the right and attacked Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott for daring to appoint a task force to consider how the Baltimore Police Department might be downsized over the next five years. The savings would be used, the mayor has said, for more effective crime reduction strategies, such as involving mental health professionals in reports of domestic disputes. In other words, spare the police from chores for which they don’t have the training — and where their presence may actually escalate matters — so they might attend to more pressing law enforcement duties. That the mayor wants to pursue such a possibility seems neither shocking nor wrongheaded, particularly given that he’s proposed spending 5% more on the same department in the next budget year despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s hit on tax revenues. Shouldn’t a city with a shrinking population be looking to find efficiencies in government at all levels, after all, law enforcement included?

But there was Governor Hogan on WBAL Radio on Thursday morning claiming to be “shocked and outraged” by Mr. Scott’s “crazy” notion. And he was just warming up. He went on to rail against Baltimore for its high homicide rate. “We’ve had thousands of people murdered in the city of Baltimore, and it’s unconscionable, but nobody wants to do anything about it,” he offered at one point, apparently not considering that he may be one of those people who hasn’t done anything about it. He then criticized the police reform package recently approved by the Maryland General Assembly. But even that was not quite enough. Before the day was over, Mr. Hogan vetoed legislation that is surely symbolic of this partisan rift: a measure to spare the most serious juvenile offenders from a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

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This last move appeared typical of the governor’s tendency, as Mayor Scott deftly observed, to go straight to the Republican talking points. Sentencing someone younger than 18 to prison forever, no matter how terrible and violent his crime, is neither humane nor an effective deterrent. And it’s been one of the worst examples of racial inequity on the books as Black defendants are about 10 times more likely to receive that sentence than whites. Nor is this a groundbreaking move. About half of the states don’t sentence juveniles to life without parole — including our next door neighbors of Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. Mr. Hogan attacked the legislation chiefly because it allows inmates serving this sentence to petition the courts for release if they have been in prison at least 20 years, a population that is more than 80% African-American. He believes that to have a judge even consider the possibility of release might be traumatizing to the families of victims. That may be the case, but it should not prevent justice from being dispensed.

Mr. Hogan surely knows this, as he must know that the Baltimore Police Department has its own problems with its past mistreatment of Black citizens and neighborhoods. And yet his cavalier thoughts on reform (on Friday, he also vetoed key components of the legislature’s police reform package), his indictment of a mayor who assumed office just four months ago, his lack of concern for social justice and, perhaps above all else, his use of Baltimore as a target of derision as if he had no responsibility, as governor, for anything that takes place there can be appalling. Worse, it is too often an obstacle to progress, both in providing badly needed economic opportunities (like, for example, the thousands of jobs lost when he killed the Red Line) and for addressing pervasive gun violence. A city that can’t trust its police force to be fair and less prone to corruption will never have an effective police force. The same might be said of a criminal justice system that would lock up a 17-year-old and throw away the key without allowing for the possibility of reform and redemption.

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Vetoes can be overridden and, thankfully, they were on Saturday as lawmakers enacted police reforms and the juvenile sentencing law. Hardened attitudes, too, though perhaps not quite so readily. In a functioning Maryland, the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor of the state’s largest municipality would sit down and find common ground instead of sniping at each other. Mr. Scott’s “reimagining” of the police department deserves a chance to be hashed out and considered. And the governor ought to stop acting like a politician intent on improving his standing with GOP primary voters whether in Maryland or Iowa in 2024. This “nobody wants to do anything about” the city homicides blather is unworthy of a governor who claims to be a get-things-done pragmatist. It is more of what we’d expect from the last White House occupant whose thoughts on Baltimore and racial equity were similarly misbegotten.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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