By Sebastian Johnson
Despite his bipartisan posturing, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan is injecting Trump-style “law-and-order” politics into this legislative session, in the hope that tough criminal justice policies may provide a boost to his reelection. How else to explain the package of emergency crime bills the governor submitted for the General Assembly’s consideration?
The issues of crime facing Maryland are very real. Baltimore endured a record-breaking 341 murders in 2018, driven by drug and gun violence. Criminal gangs like MS-13 pose a threat to the safety and cohesion of communities across our state. The deep urgency of the moment makes Hogan’s approach even more frustrating.
The House Judiciary Committee recently held public hearings on the follow emergency measures:
- HB100: This bill would increase mandatory minimums for a person convicted a second time for a violent crime, ensure people sentenced to life in prison serve at least 25 years despite mitigating factors like good behavior, and would restrict substance abuse treatment options available to persons convicted of violent crime. The bill’s fiscal note predicts “a significant increase in general fund expenditures for incarceration.”
- HB101: This bill would increase mandatory minimums for persons convicted of a second offense of using a firearm in commission of a violent crime to 10 years, and increase the maximum sentence for this crime to 40 years. The bill’s fiscal note predicts an “increase in general fund expenditures in the near term due to more offenders serving longer sentences under the bill.”
- HB102: This bill would require that teenagers 16 and older be tried as adults if alleged to have committed criminal gang activity, and increases maximum sentences for gang violations. The bill’s fiscal note predicts an “increase in general fund expenditures for incarcerations due to the bill’s penalty provisions and expanded application of incarceration penalties.”
- HB358: This bill would increase mandatory minimums for possession of fetanyl to five years. The bill’s fiscal note predicts that general fund expenditures will increase due to these criminal penalties.
The governor’s response to the violent crime and drug crisis is to lock up people longer, to try kids as adults and to arrest people struggling with addiction. All of these approaches have been tried before and proven to be ineffective in reducing crime, destructive to families and communities, and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
As has been his approach since he took office, the governor snubbed the efforts of Baltimore’s elected mayor, who has promoted her own community-based initiative “to support and expand mentoring and other services aimed at helping African-American boys and men avoid falling prey to crime and violence.”
Hogan’s bills were met with widespread skepticism from many delegates. Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery), vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, was particularly unimpressed with the evidence that bill supporters offered. “This is my 16th session,” she noted. “Every time a bill says ‘lets increase penalties,’ we don’t get evidence-based analysis. And that bothers me.”
Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City), chair of the criminal justice subcommittee, agreed, saying that the governor’s staff provided “paper-thin information” and relied on harrowing anecdotes over data. “What are the new innovations, the things you’re planning to do to prevent violent offenses in the first place?” he asked.
Reactions from legislators outside the hearing room were equally unconvinced. Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery) said, “This is the easy way out. It’s easy to pass tough bills. We need an approach that actually decreases crime and to find solutions that promote public safety while providing avenues for people. We know the ‘lock ‘em up’ approach doesn’t work.”
Del. Marice Morales (D-Montgomery) predicted that the governor’s bills would make the situation more volatile. “The ‘War on Crime’ in the 1990s exacerbated the problem and worsened the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” she argued. “In some of our communities, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can get picked up for anything.” Morales also pointed to underlying issues of racial discrimination and poverty that drive violence and disorder. “The cumulative effect of housing policies, redlining, vicious cycles of debt targeting black and brown families — of course communities suffer.”
Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) thought the bills were stuck in the past. “The governor’s urge to do something is understandable. But a rollback to the 1980s is not the answer,” he said. “We need to look to the future, not the past, for solutions.” Korman also noted that prevention programs were significantly underfunded, and would be a better use of state dollars. “Services aren’t available in sufficient numbers to actually reach people. How can we experiment and scale the programs that work to prevent substance abuse and violence?”
Wilkins sounded a similar note. “The lack of dollars for prevention is astounding,” she said. “If you look at the gang bill, it does very little to prevent gang violence in the first place.”
The majority of public comments during the hearing were in opposition to the governor’s bills, led by the ACLU and likeminded groups. Many of the opponents cited the evidence that supporters ignored, arguing that mandatory minimums are ineffective, reduce the discretion of judges, and increase the power of prosecutors to push for tough sentences and unfair plea bargains. Treatment, some argued, is even more critical for violent offenders if the cycle of violence is to be broken.
Given the partisan makeup of the General Assembly and the lack of enthusiasm for these measures from many legislators, it appears the governor’s crime package is dead on arrival. The state would be served better by an effective collaboration between the governor, legislature, law enforcement and local elected officials on efforts to reduce the root causes of violence and drug addiction in many of our neighborhoods.
In fact, everyone involved could do more to address the related crisis of police misconduct that poisons relationships with communities and prevents effective crime-fighting. On the same day of the hearing, The New York Times ran an article detailing astonishing corruption in the Baltimore Police Department, headlined “In Baltimore, Brazen Officers Took Every Chance to Rob and Cheat.”
But these long-term approaches don’t yield the short-term benefits of law-and-order posturing that are sure to accrue to Gov. Hogan and his allies. It’s a shame they are squandering an opportunity to actually be smart instead of appearing to be tough.
Sebastian Johnson is a philanthropic strategist and policy advocate whose writing has been featured in The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.