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Comprehensive crime bill backed by Gov. Hogan stalls, but pieces of it advance

Just hours on the job in January, Baltimore's new police commissioner Darryl DeSousa deployed waves of officers to problem areas.
Just hours on the job in January, Baltimore's new police commissioner Darryl DeSousa deployed waves of officers to problem areas. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The sweeping crime bill that Gov. Larry Hogan and some members of the Maryland General Assembly said would help combat violence in Baltimore was beginning to collapse with just three days left in the 2018 legislative session.

Opposition from black and Latino lawmakers in the House of Delegates had slowed progress of a Senate-approved measure that includes a range of crime fighting proposals — including tougher sentences, which has stoked concerns of mass incarceration.

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But lawmakers eager to demonstrate progress on violent crime in an election year began working Friday to break the comprehensive bill into smaller pieces of legislation that appeared to have better chances of passing before the legislature's Monday deadline.

The journey of the crime bill has been bumpy. After the Republican governor proposed a series of anti-crime bills, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the judicial proceedings committee, combined them with other lawmakers' proposals into one comprehensive measure.

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As approved by the Senate, the measure would increase sentences but dropped Hogan's approach of increasing mandatory minimum sentences. It included proposals to make it easier for prosecutors to win convictions in drug and gun cases. It would also earmark millions of dollars in spending on anti-crime programs — including those supported by Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.

But after Senate passage, the measure attracted fierce objections from advocates of criminal justice reform, some of whom predicted it would exacerbate problems of mass incarceration.

Speaker Michael E. Busch and the Democratic leadership were in no hurry to advance legislation that would split the party caucus. The Legislative Black Caucus and its Latino counterpart make up almost half of the Democratic majority.

A sweeping crime bill that passed the Maryland Senate with Gov. Larry Hogan's support is being attacked by critics who call it an election year ploy tainted by harsh, racist sentencing proposals.

A House committee jettisoned some of the harsh penalties in the Senate bill, but the caucuses still opposed the single-bill approach. They said its provisions would fall disproportionately on minorities.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House appropriations committee, dealt the bill its death blow by refusing to hold a vote on the comprehensive measure. She suggested the Senate committee consider a new strategy: start approving House-passed bills that would accomplish the bigger bill's agreeable goals in a piecemeal fashion.

Hours later, the Senate panel started to do just that.

The Senate committee approved a bill by Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat whose grandson was shot to death in the city last year, that would require spending $3.6 million a year on the Safe Streets anti-violence initiative — a favorite of Pugh's administration.

The committee also advanced a House bill sponsored by Del. Brooke Lierman to authorize $10 million a year and require another $12 million a year in spending for violence prevention and other anti-crime programs mostly in Baltimore. The Senate added about $600,000 in programs of its own.

The panel approved another Branch-sponsored bill that would increase penalties for people convicted of a second offense of wearing, carrying or transporting a loaded handgun illegally.

A spokeswoman for Hogan said the governor still supports strategies that target repeat violent offenders, especially those using guns.

"We strongly believe that [the Senate bill], either as a single package or broken up into multiple bills, will have a transformative impact on crime in Baltimore city and across the state," spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said. "We'll let the General Assembly determine the best process by which to get these important initiatives to the governor's desk."

The Maryland Senate is preparing a comprehensive crime bill that jettisons two key elements of Gov. Larry Hogan's proposal to combat street violence — mandatory minimum sentences and a crackdown on gangs.

Zirkin, the chief architect of his chamber's omnibus bill, said he was no longer wedded to that approach.

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"The only thing that matters is getting the substance of the bill passed," he said. "It doesn't matter if the approach is on one bill or ten bills."

Lawmakers and legislative staffers said parts of the comprehensive bill could still be salvaged if the chambers can agree quickly Monday.

They include proposals dealing with witness intimidation and extending prosecutors' authority to seek wiretaps for gun offenses as well as drug cases. Another proposal would make it easier to prosecute drug traffickers who combine deadly fentanyl, a chief culprit in the nationwide spike in overdose deaths, with other drugs.

Lawmakers and staffers said the sentencing provisions in the original bill are the most likely to be scrapped. The Senate sought penalties as high as 40 years for some gun-related offenses. The House proposed 20 years.

Zirkin insisted Friday that the sentencing issues, which concentrate on repeat offenders in gun crimes, are still an important part of the mix.

"It's about protecting people," he said.

He pointed to Wednesday's murder of two women in a home invasion in West Baltimore. Had there been tougher sentences for prior gun crimes, he suggested, the unknown perpetrators might have been in jail already.

Hogan's office was reserving judgment.

"We are working closely with legislative leaders, including the speaker's office, to ensure that the governor's priorities are represented," Chasse said.

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