Citing their opposition to mandatory minimum sentences, Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly say they are unlikely to pass Gov. Larry Hogan’s priority this session ― the Violent Firearms Offender Act ― infuriating the governor, who alleges lawmakers aren’t taking shootings in Baltimore seriously.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Hogan argued lawmakers who don’t support his legislation are out of touch with the views of most Marylanders and should step down from their leadership posts. On a table in his office at the State House, he spread out internal poll results that he said show residents overwhelmingly want “tougher sentences for violent offenders who commit crimes with guns.”
“If they don’t pass the bill, people are going to continue to die,” Hogan warned Wednesday. “People are going to get shot every day in Baltimore City.”
The act would toughen about a dozen penalties in Maryland law for people convicted of gun offenses, including for using a firearm in the commission of a crime and possession of an illegal gun. It would impose six new mandatory minimum sentences on gun offenders; mandate consecutive, not concurrent, sentences for five other gun crimes, and lengthen the maximum penalty on two more gun offenses.
A nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services analysis determined the bill could mean longer sentences for more than 800 gun offenders a year.
“If they don’t pass the bill, people are going to continue to die. People are going to get shot every day in Baltimore City.”— Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan
Democrats say they oppose the mandatory minimum sentences in the legislation. They note the General Assembly passed tougher mandatory minimum sentences on some gun offenders just two years ago, and those have done nothing to lower the violent crime rate in Baltimore. The city has suffered from more than 300 homicides for five years in a row. More than 40 people already have been slain in 2020.
Sen. William C. Smith Jr., the new chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said Hogan’s bill will not receive approval in his committee unless the provisions that remove judicial discretion in sentencing are removed.
Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the Hogan administration has offered him no data that mandatory minimum sentencing laws improve public safety.
“I’m not interested in moving a bill with draconian mandatory minimums, absent any hard evidence such measures would improve the security proposition in Baltimore City or the rest of the state,” Smith said.
The governor’s deputy legislative officer, Cara Sullivan, recently told the committee the legislature should make a distinction between mandatory minimums for low-level offenses, such as marijuana possession, and those for gun crimes.
“I’m not interested in moving a bill with draconian mandatory minimums absent any hard evidence such measures would improve the security proposition in Baltimore City or the rest of the state."— Sen. William C. Smith Jr., the new chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee
“Not all mandatory minimums are created equal,” Sullivan said.
“I get there’s very little sympathy for violent offenders,” Smith replied. “I haven’t seen any real numbers that adding more mandatory minimums is an effective approach to driving down crime. I’d love to see some of that data. We just haven’t seen it in this committee.”
Likewise, Del. Luke Clippinger, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he believes Hogan’s bill will have little effect on public safety. Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who is a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County, said the state needs tougher enforcement of existing laws, not more statutes.
“You can’t just pass a bill and say, ‘OK, crime is solved,’" Clippinger said.
Clippinger said deeper problems appear to exist in the arrest and prosecution of criminals, not the laws on the books. He pointed to last year’s historic low in Baltimore’s arrest rate ― fewer than 20,000 arrests, compared with more than 100,000 annually under Democratic Mayor Martin O’Malley’s tough-on-crime policies ― and a low homicide clearance rate of 32% as contributing to the violence.
“We have mandatory minimums on the books,” Clippinger said. “If you commit a carjacking with a gun, you are eligible for a mandatory five years in prison. If you came back a second time, it’s a mandatory 10. But you can’t get a mandatory minimum if there’s not an arrest.”
Democrats also have proposed conducting an audit of all gun crimes in Maryland ― to find out where the state’s criminal justice system is breaking down and letting shooters escape justice ― and requiring a staffing plan for parole and probation, juvenile services and corrections, all of which face staffing shortages.
Clippinger said legislation targeting witness intimidation ― different versions of which are supported by Hogan and Democrats ― faced better prospects of passing.
“We will continue to be focused on this issue," Clippinger said of reducing crime. “We look forward to speaking with the governor and hearing more from his people about legislation that actually has a direct impact on public safety.”
On the “C4 Show” on WBAL-AM on Tuesday, Hogan took issue with Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat, who testified before the legislature that funding for public schools is a “life or death" matter, but hasn’t supported the governor’s crime legislation.
Then in The Sun interview, Hogan cited the results of a December poll he commissioned from Ragnar Research Partners that showed 85% of 600 Marylanders surveyed support a “proposal to increase tougher sentences for violent offenders who commit crimes with guns,” while just 9% oppose such sentences. In Baltimore, 85% of residents also supported tougher sentences, the poll said.
The governor pointed to statistics from the Baltimore Police Department that show homicide suspects in 2019 had been arrested an average of eight times previously.
“This is about a couple hundred of the most violent criminals who repeatedly shoot people. For a chairman of a committee to say ‘We’re not going to do it’ is disgraceful," Hogan said of Smith. "And he probably should not be chairman of that committee.”
Senate President Bill Ferguson took exception to the governor’s remarks about Smith.
“The governor went over the line,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. He added that Hogan’s remarks were “totally unacceptable.”
Ferguson said the governor has a standing invitation to meet with the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Hogan has never testified at a committee hearing on his bills, according to General Assembly staff.
At the start of his committee meeting Thursday, Smith said: “I’m not going anywhere."
“The governor has got to start leading and stop polling," Smith said.
Hogan hammered the issue for a third day Thursday, calling a news conference to condemn the legislature’s inaction on his legislation. He said he would submit amendments to reclassify his bills as “emergency legislation." That would allow them to take effect immediately, if they became law.
State Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican who is House minority leader, said it’s not too late for Democrats to support the governor’s bills.
“We can agree that dangerous people who have a history of violent crimes should be behind bars,” Kipke said. “It’s a moral imperative that we act on the governor’s bills. To not move on meaningful legislation — it’s only going to spur more senseless tragedies.”
House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said Hogan’s administration should focus on using state agencies to fight crime.
“We cannot just add more criminal laws on the books if the ones we have aren’t being used effectively. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” Jones said. “I have not met with the governor once since the legislative session began. If he has an urgent concern about his bills, I invite him to pick up the phone or talk to me directly."
Maryland Policy & Politics
Baltimore Sun reporters Emily Opilo and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.