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House committee takes up gun-crimes legislation

ANNAPOLIS — Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the daughter of slain City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. urged state lawmakers Tuesday to increase prison terms for people convicted of illegal gun possession, including a new mandatory minimum sentence of 18 months if the weapon was loaded.

“Our current laws are simply not strong enough,” Rawlings-Blake told the House Judiciary Committee. “There’s too much at stake. Our communities demand more.”

Nicole Harris-Crest said Charles McGaney, one of the two men convicted in October of murdering her father outside a Northeast Baltimore jazz club, had been convicted of a gun crime less than 18 months before the 2008 slaying but served only a few months in jail.

“With tougher sentences these people wouldn’t have been on the street and my father would be alive today,” Harris-Crest told the committee. “We can act now to make sure other people’s lives are not harmed.”

The two women were joined by Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III in testifying for House Bill 241, which would raise from five years to 15 years the potential sentence for people found guilty of gun possession after having been convicted of a violent offense or felony drug crime.

Under Maryland law at present, five years is both the minimum and maximum sentence for such repeat offenders. That creates a disincentive for defendants to plead guilty because the penalty is known and non-negotiable, Bernstein told the committee.

Extending the potential punishment to 15 years would “give [prosecutors] the negotiating leverage” to strike plea bargains in return for the defendants’ testimony against other wrongdoers, he said.

Rawlings-Blake, Bernstein and Bealefeld also spoke in favor of House Bill 252, which would impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 18 months for anyone convicted of possessing a loaded gun without a valid permit. All three said the law, which would permit sentences of up to 10 years in prison, would bring certain punishment to gun offenders who often receive short or even suspended sentences.

The measure would “get the guns and criminals who use them off the streets,” the mayor said.

Del. Curtis S. “Curt” Anderson, a Democrat who chairs Baltimore’s House delegation, introduced the two bills at the request of the city’s leaders.

The legislation drew criticism from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and the Maryland Judiciary, both of which expressed concern that the mandatory sentence would rob judges of their ability to determine a just punishment for individual offenders.

“Sentencing under our system of laws and the Constitution is supposed to occur on a case-by-case basis grounded in the particular circumstances of each crime and offender,” the public defender’s office stated in written testimony to the committee.

Bealefeld, supporting the bills, cited city data showing that 44 percent of defendants charged with homicide in Baltimore have prior handgun offenses.

“Maryland’s most violent offenders are getting guns over and over and over again,” Bealefeld said. “We need these two bills to hold criminals accountable for their actions.”

The top prosecutors from Baltimore County and Prince George’s County also testified in favor of the bills.

“It’s not just a Baltimore City problem,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said of handgun violence committed by repeat offenders. “It’s a statewide issue.”

Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks noted that 16 people were killed in the first month of this year.

“This issue is of critical importance to Prince George’s County,” she said. “It also sends the proper message: This type of violence will not be tolerated in Prince George’s County.”

Identical bills to the House measures, S.B. 239 and 240, have been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell, D-Baltimore City.

McGaney and Jerome Williams were convicted of second-degree murder and felony murder in the shooting of Harris, 45, outside the New Haven Lounge on Sept. 20, 2008. A third defendant, Gary Collins, was convicted of conspiracy, assault and handgun charges.