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Maryland Senate committee advances three anti-crime bills, including aspects of Gov. Hogan’s Violent Firearms Offenders Act

Despite weeks of hostility, a Maryland Senate committee late Wednesday advanced three anti-crime bills, including one that contains large portions of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s top legislative priority ― the Violent Firearms Offenders Act.

The Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, chaired by Democratic Montgomery County Sen. William C. Smith Jr., passed a raft of tougher penalties for gun offenders in the legislation but only after voting to strip the bill of its six mandatory minimum sentences.

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Democrats on the committee opposed such sentencing restrictions because they remove discretion from judges to decide each sentence on its merits.

The committee voted 10-1 to amend the remaining aspects of Hogan’s bill ― making theft of a firearm a felony; increasing penalties for giving someone a gun to commit a crime; and for those repeatedly caught carrying illegal guns ― onto a bill sponsored by Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, that toughens penalties against use of a gun while engaging in drug dealing.

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“A couple weeks ago, everyone was publicly fighting,” Hough said. “We all worked really hard behind the scenes. All the parties worked together.”

The only member of the committee to vote against the bill was state Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who argued the legislation was more of the “same old tough-on-crime mentality” that has failed to reduce crime over the long term.

“It’s ill-conceived,” Carter said.

The committee also advanced legislation sponsored by Smith to require regional policing plans and a bill from Baltimore Sen. Antonio Hayes, a Democrat, to provide more law enforcement resources to Baltimore.

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Hayes’ bill would create 10 high-crime micro-zones that would receive extra law enforcement resources and services; mandate increased oversight of offenders on parole or probation; and require state police traffic patrols in Baltimore to free up city police to investigate crimes.

“This is a smart and targeted way to address crime in Baltimore,” Hayes said. “This is an example of how we can leverage our state resources.”

The bills were latest advanced out of the Judicial Proceedings Committee amid a clash between Hogan and Democrats, specifically Smith. Last week, the committee advanced legislation to address witness intimidation and require greater tracking of sentences handed down by judges.

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.

Wednesday night, Smith praised the committee’s ability to work across party lines.

“It’s a bipartisan approach to push forward a comprehensive crime package that focuses on repeat violent offenders but also leaves judicial discretion,” Smith said.

The bills now move to the full Senate for consideration.

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