As Baltimore approaches 300 murders for the fourth consecutive year, the police commissioner and State’s Attorney’s Office — people who should be responsible for the safety of our citizens — are looking for scapegoats rather than admitting that they are unable or unwilling to get the job done. Arguing from the same old play book, these leaders always blame the dreaded “repeat violent offender” — you know, the individual who has numerous adult criminal convictions and would not even be on the street but for those irresponsible, soft-on-crime judges who simply refuse to put anyone in jail.
Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle once again played this deflection tactic citing the case of a Mr. Raytawn Benjamin in an op-ed entitled “Judges must stop letting violent criminals go.” Commissioner Tuggle argues that Mr. Benjamin is a repeat violent offender and should be in jail for eight years but was given Probation before Judgment (PBJ) and sent home — presumably to commit more crimes. It was a shocking story. But, when you look at it more closely, the interim commissioner left out some very important facts.
In 2016, Mr. Benjamin, who had no prior adult criminal record, was arrested and pled guilty to handgun possession and, after sitting in jail for five months, received a three-year probationary sentence. A few months later, the officers who arrested him were themselves brought up on federal racketeering and robbery charges as part of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) case. When the State’s Attorney's Office approached the Public Defenders’ Office to file a motion to strike certain sentences, especially those related to drugs and guns involving these officers, prosecutors chose Mr. Benjamin's case as one of the first, considering it to be utterly compromised by the criminal acts of these officers, according to Natalie Finegar, who was then the deputy district public defender and represented Mr. Benjamin in the motion. This joint motion was filed and the court agreed to throw out the guilty finding and dismiss the case, thereby erasing Mr. Benjamin’s handgun conviction, leaving him with no adult record.
The fact that Commissioner Tuggle neglected to mention the BPD’s own role in causing the overturning of Mr. Benjamin’s earlier conviction demonstrates that his position in these matters is more political than a true discourse in finding solutions to the problems that plague our system.
On July 6th of this year, Mr. Benjamin was arrested and charged with misdemeanor possession and carrying of a handgun. Mr. Benjamin, who was supported by many family members in court and had recently suffered a devastating loss with the murders of his mother and sister, had already completed five months of jail time when the state asked for an 8 year sentence with all but 18 months suspended, according to a recording of the hearing. If granted, Mr. Benjamin would remain in jail for approximately 30 more days and then be released on probation, with a record.
Upon careful examination of Mr. Benjamin’s actions and further probing into his background, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Geller decided to try to positively impact Mr. Benjamin’s circumstances, according to the recording. Judge Geller devised a plan to help set up Mr. Benjamin for success by coordinating his admittance into a youth job training program with Living Classrooms. Additionally, Judge Geller wanted to remove obstacles from Mr. Benjamin’s path to employment, thereby granting him a probation before judgment, which means he will not have a conviction if he successfully completes a period of supervision. But there were stipulations to Judge Geller’s decision. Mr. Benjamin would be required to physically report to a probation agent in addition to reporting to Judge Geller every 60 days, starting in January, and he was required to successfully complete the youth job training program. Any missteps, and Mr. Benjamin would be facing seven years and seven months in prison.
Mr. Benjamin’s case is not about a “repeat violent offender” or a judge who failed to do his job. It is about the inability of key criminal justice officials to think creatively within a system that must balance public safety and reform against the backdrop of mass incarceration. It’s imperative that we look at these issues honestly, and with transparency, if we ever want to bring true reform to the criminal justice system.
Like the rest of us, our judges live in a city where crime is out of control, and they have just as much of a vested interest in public safety as any other city resident. Decisions like Judge Geller’s also show how the criminal justice system can be used to put people, particularly our youth, on a better path. Decisions like Judge Geller’s provide consequences while also inspiring hope. And hope is something that our city truly needs.
Ivan Bates is an attorney in private practice in Baltimore and a former candidate for state’s attorney; his email is Ivan@BatesGarcia.com.