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Justice Dept. to Baltimore: Do the impossible illegally

Baltimore is in the midst of a murderous year, perhaps its worst ever, so you will pardon us if we find little amusing about the recent letter from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warning Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis that the city will be ineligible for federal aid under the National Public Safety Partnership program (which is aimed at just the kind of violence that plagues Baltimore) unless he does the impossible — require a jail controlled by the state, not the city, to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement to a level Maryland's attorney general has already warned is unconstitutional. The absurdity of the letter is only outdone by its moral bankruptcy. The state has been in charge of city prisoners since 1991, a detail Mr. Sessions' esteemed deputy, former Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, surely stumbled across during his wide-ranging investigation into corruption at the now closed Baltimore City Detention Center several years ago. But then we doubt this particular initiative was vetted by anyone with expertise in actual justice.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved to again punish so-called sanctuary cities, this time threatening to deny federal crime-fighting resources.

At the heart of this repugnancy are administrative detainers. Those are the requests made to local jails by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain inmates suspected of breaking immigration laws for up to 48 hours after they're scheduled to be released. No probable cause, no due process, no judicial oversight. A lot of jurisdictions are refusing them on similar constitutional grounds — they amount to a second arrest of a suspect in a manner that not only tramples their rights but is fundamentally harmful to public safety. What kind of country jails people without cause? What message does that send to the immigrant community and and what damage does it do to efforts to cultivate trust with police? Why target people who are actually less likely to commit crimes than average Americans?

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Andrew Harnik / AP)

But let's leave the merits of detainers aside. A handful of cities across the country are getting similar threatening letters from Mr. Sessions, but how is it that the U.S. Department of Justice and its 113,000 or so employees can't do a quick Internet search and figure out Baltimore doesn't control the local jail? The first rule of any blackmail scheme is, after all, to make sure that the victim has something the perpetrator wants. It's not within the power of Commissioner Davis, Mayor Catherine Pugh or anyone else in or around City Hall to set policy on detainers. Perhaps, Mr. Sessions, we might interest you in something else? A supportive note from Mayor Pugh to President Donald Trump the next time he's in town? Some used Confederate monuments?

Sessions wants Baltimore to make potentially unconstitutional changes at a jail it doesn't control in order to join a crime-fighting program.

Incidentally, it's not even clear that state authorities would refuse to cooperate with ICE detainer requests. The current word is that under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, such requests are now considered on a case-by-case basis. And, by the way, the state has no record of having received one since January of 2015. How many layers of ridiculousness can one letter hold?

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We don't know how much is at stake in whether Baltimore is eligible for National Public Safety Partnership assistance. We tend to assume that any additional crime-fighting resources — even if they simply translate into more police on the street, help with data collection or simply the addition of some outside expertise — has got to be helpful. Or, to put it another way, how can they hurt? In a city where murders have become so commonplace that advocates pleaded for a single weekend of cease fire, a single weekend, how could anyone in Washington for a minute think it's useful to deny assistance of any kind? It's the equivalent of denying disaster assistance while victims are drowning and their homes have collapsed. Who thinks like this?

It's obvious that the anti-immigrant, xenophobic blather of the campaign is now translating into constitutionally-suspect initiatives across a spectrum of immigration policies, all seemingly aimed at shoring up President Trump's dwindling political support (his disapproval rating having risen to 61 percent, a new high, under a recent Quinnipiac University poll). Baltimore's murders aren't being committed by the undocumented, they're being committed by repeat violent offenders associated with the drug trade. The city is crying out for help, and all the nation's chief law enforcement officer wants to do is withhold assistance over a policy that Baltimore can't change and one that hasn't even mattered for the last two years. How anyone in the Justice Department can sleep at night is a mystery to us.

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