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Maryland Senate passes anti-crime package, including aspects of Gov. Hogan’s Violent Firearms Offenders Act

After weeks of bitter fighting, the Maryland Senate has approved a package of anti-crime bills, including one that contains large portions of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s top legislative priority ― the Violent Firearms Offenders Act.

The compromise legislation comes after the Judicial Proceedings Committee, chaired by Democratic Montgomery County Sen. William C. Smith Jr., agreed to move forward with Hogan’s push for a raft of tougher penalties for gun offenders — but only after stripping the governor’s legislation of its six mandatory minimum sentences. Smith and other Democrats on the committee opposed such sentencing restrictions because they remove discretion from judges.

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Tuesday morning, the Senate voted 43-4 to pass legislation sponsored by Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, that included the remaining aspects of Hogan’s bill: making theft of a firearm a felony, and increasing penalties for giving someone a gun to commit a crime and for those repeatedly caught carrying illegal guns. Hough’s bill also would toughen penalties against use of a gun while engaging in drug dealing.

“Marylanders want leaders to work together to solve problems. We just did exactly that," Hough said after the vote.

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“We had some tense moments at the beginning of the session when it came to crime,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who pushed for the compromise, said after the bill’s passage. “It’s a really difficult, complex, hard issue.”

But Ferguson said the package of bills that emerged from negotiations included “the legislature’s priorities and some of the governor’s priorities.”

Those voting against Hough’s bill included Baltimore Democratic senators Jill P. Carter, Cory V. McCray and Antonio Hayes; and Malcolm L. Augustine, a Prince George’s County Democrat. Carter argued the legislation was “ill-conceived” and more of the “same old tough-on-crime mentality” that has failed to reduce crime over the long term.

The rest of the package of bills passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support.

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With a 47-0 vote, the Senate unanimously passed Smith’s legislation to require regional policing plans; and, with a 43-4 vote, Hayes’ bill to provide about $12 million more in law enforcement resources to Baltimore. Hayes’ bill would create 10 high-crime microzones that would receive extra resources and services, mandate increased oversight of offenders on parole or probation, and authorize state police traffic patrols in Baltimore to free up city police to investigate crimes.

Monday night, with votes of 44-1, the Senate also approved legislation from Sen. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat, to address witness intimidation by making it easier for prosecutors to submit a witness’ testimony in court; and require greater tracking of sentences handed down by judges. Those were initiatives also favored by Hogan this session.

The bills were the result of a compromise after a clash between Hogan and Democrats, specifically Smith. Citing his opposition to mandatory minimum sentences, Smith had said he would not advance Hogan’s Violent Firearms Offenders Act unless those provisions were removed. That led to Hogan angrily calling for Smith to step down as chairman ― and Smith to condemn the governor’s rhetoric.

Smith said two more pieces of the package, sponsored by Carter, would advance soon too. One would mandate spending on violence interruption programs, such as Safe Streets or Roca; the other would subject certain complaints against law enforcement officers to the Maryland Public Information Act.

“It’s a seven-part package that will result in millions of investment for Baltimore and the state," Smith said.

The legislation passed by the Senate now advances to the House of Delegates. If the bills pass there, they would head to Hogan’s desk for his signature.

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