Democratic lawmakers pressed for a stronger government response to the public safety crisis gripping the state’s largest city on Tuesday, offering a package of bills they said would bring greater resources to distressed communities.
They also accused Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) of pulling resources from low-income areas.
Last year saw a record 348 murders in Baltimore City, more than occurred in New York City, a jurisdiction more than 10 times as large. It was the fifth year in a row that the homicide rate topped 300 — or nearly one a day.
Lawmakers pressed for:
- A crackdown on illegal weapons
- Greater supervision of residents who are on parole and probation
- Improved information-sharing and coordination among local police agencies
- Beefed-up monitoring of drugs and guns coming into the Port of Baltimore
- Increased penalties for people who fail to report lost or stolen guns
Legislators also announced support for a measure to crack down on witness intimidation, a cause Hogan has championed.
“We have reached a tipping point in our approach to public safety,” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) said. “Our old ways of doing things no longer works.”
“Residents are tired of hearing politicians restate our problems without offering solutions,” Jones said, in a possible swipe at Hogan.
“We’ve been working on these issues for weeks and weeks and months and months,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City).
On Tuesday his panel heard testimony on several crime bills Hogan has introduced.
Hogan’s measures would:
- mandate harsher penalties for offenders who use and illegally possess firearms;
- toughen sanctions on for witness intimidation resulting in serious physical injury or death, and expand the courts’ ability to admit statements made by intimidated witnesses;
- require criminals to pay restitution to their victims;
- require that every sentence that a judge hands down for violent crime be posted in an online database
Hogan also has encouraged the Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby (D) to work more closely with state and federal prosecutors.
At the hearing, Hogan’s deputy legislative officer Cara Sullivan cast his “judicial transparency” bill, House Bill 355, as a public disclosure measure.
“This information will reveal trends about how violent criminals are being sentenced,” Sullivan said. “If a specific judge is giving much higher, or much lower, sentences than their counterparts in the same circuit or across the state, this bill provides a starting point to ask why.”
The same, she said, would apply to plea agreements.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Shannon E. Avery told the committee she opposed to the bill on a number of grounds, including that it would disallow judicial decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis, and that tethering those decisions to governmental bodies is unconstitutional.
“The notion that judges in their individual sentencing decisions should be accountable to the executive ― or frankly to the legislature or the public ― is not countenanced by the Constitution,” she said.
“It is clear by our code of conduct and the constitutional requirements of the process and separation of powers, that there not be an accountability for our individual judicial decisions to any other agency of government.”
Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Coordinator Steven Kroll testified in support of the bill that would crack down on witness intimidation, which he said is an insidious problem.
“If you, like me, feel that ‘stop snitching’ is real and ‘stop snitching’ exists then you should support this bill,” he said.
Hogan delivers his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature on Wednesday. His remarks will focus extensively on the bloodshed in Baltimore City.
The hastily-called news conference that Assembly Democrats held on Tuesday came less than 24 hours after Hogan discussed crime concerns at a breakfast with community leaders in Baltimore.
The Democrats’ presentation was seen as an attempt to get ahead of the crime issue before the governor’s address.
Hogan and a small group of community leaders — many of them ministers — met at the Broadway Diner on Eastern Avenue. Afterward, he told reporters, “If the legislature does nothing else… they have to address the violent crime situation in Baltimore City.”
Tuesday morning the House voted 87-47 for a bill that would mandate background checks on private sales and transfers of shotguns and rifles.
It was a largely party-line vote, but seven Democrats ― Dels. Harry Bhandari (Baltimore County), Ned Carey (Anne Arundel), Michele Guyton (Baltimore County), Carl Jackson (Baltimore County), Steve Johnson (Harford), Ken Kerr (Frederick) and Mary Ann Lisanti (Harford) ― voted against the measure, and one Republican, Del. Michael E. Malone (R-Anne Arundel), voted in favor of it.
Versions of the legislation passed both chambers in 2019, but differences between the House and Senate bills were not resolved before that session ended.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) is a cosponsor of the Senate version of the bill this session. A Senate hearing is set for Wednesday and Smith said the bill will “move quickly” this year.
Danielle E. Gaines and Hannah Gaskill contributed to this report.