As record violence continues in Baltimore city, members of a Maryland Senate committee on Tuesday will address possible solutions ahead of the next year’s legislative session, including Gov. Larry Hogan’s suggestion of “truth-in-sentencing” legislation to keep violent offenders from avoiding serious jail time.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing will allow Baltimore officials and community leaders to discuss root causes and options, though no legislation has been proposed. Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, who chairs the committee, said he wants to avoid having a bill hearing with no bill but will encourage looking at data and the complexity of the issues.
“I think big issues, it’s very important that we are going to work collaboratively,” Zirkin said Friday.
Hogan has said he will announce a criminal justice package before the 2018 legislative session that will feature a truth-in-sentencing proposal to address concerns about violent offenders, often using guns, who do not spend a significant amount of time behind bars.
Details are not yet available, according to spokesman Douglass Mayer, including what Hogan means by “truth in sentencing.” The governor has been critical of Baltimore city judges’ roles in the criminal justice system, and his only elaboration on his proposal has been to say, “If you say you’re going to get this number of years (in jail), then you’re going to get that number of years.”
The issue is a nuanced one, however. Gun charges with mandatory-minimum sentences — which cannot be suspended — require the defendant to serve the entire sentence without parole, according to Baltimore defense attorney Natalie Finnegar, and in some jurisdictions “truth-in-sentencing” means more time served and less parole, which allows for early release for good behavior.
“Why would we want to stop encouraging good behavior in incarceration?” she asked.
Parole is different from a suspended sentence, which Hogan has been critical of in recent statements. Suspended time is an additional period of incarceration a judge can impose if the defendant violates probation after being released.
Kirsten Downs, district public defender for Baltimore, said so-called “split sentences” are a way to provide resources for an offender upon release.
“I think when the judges are giving split sentences and giving individuals the opportunity to have some resources provided to them, to have some sort of options… I think those are the sentences that are really the best,” she said.
Melba Saunders, spokeswoman for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, did not specify what kind of truth-in-sentencing legislation State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby might support but said the office distinguishes violent repeat offenders from other cases.
“Our office is committed to holding criminals who wreak havoc in our city accountable for their actions,” Saunders said in an emailed statement.
Hogan and the Baltimore Police Department regularly cite a statistic: 60 percent of defendants convicted in a case involving a gun charge have at least half of their sentence suspended.
The figure comes from an internal police tracking document, which captured 605 cases involving a gun charge between January 2016 and July 9, 2017. The majority of the tracked cases involved a gun offense as the lead, or most serious, charge in the case. These charges mostly stemmed from illegally carrying a weapon, either without a permit or as a prohibited person such as a felon or a minor.
But less than 100 of the cases involved a violent crime against a person as the lead offense; of those, more than 70 percent of offenders had at least half of their sentence suspended.
Mayer declined to comment directly on whether the governor’s legislation would distinguish between an individual illegally carrying a gun and one committing armed robbery with one.
“What the governor is focused on is repeat violent offenders and then repeat violent offenders with guns,” he said.
Zirkin said violent criminals belong behind bars but acknowledged not every felon carrying a gun is a violent criminal, though “in many cases” they should be considered one.
Downs said the statistics do not shed any light on why a judge might have given a sentence but lumping every situation under the label of violent crime creates emotion.
“All of those numbers translate to an individual person with individual circumstances,” she said. “I don’t think that the system can be fair unless each case is looked at individually.”
The police department’s data also do not note which cases resulted in a conviction for a gun charge, only cases involving a gun charge where the defendant was convicted and sentenced for one or more offenses.
Defense attorneys say there are reasons a gun charge might not make it to a conviction and sentencing, including situations where it becomes clear after the arrest the defendant cannot be tied to the gun and the charge is not pursued.
“If you’ve got a gun in a car, everyone is getting charged with a gun,” Finnegar, who spent 23 years with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said by way of example. Attorneys will later argue over ownership of the gun and the charge will not be pursued against some of the group, she said.
Finnegar said it may be unfair to blame judges when a prosecutor may be unable to prove a gun charge, which sometimes carry mandatory-minimum sentences without parole, and choose not to pursue it.
“When a mandatory minimum isn’t invoked in a handgun case, it means there’s some flaw in that case, there’s some compelling reason why it might not be pursued,” Finnegar said. “And that’s done in negotiations with the State’s Attorney’s Office.”
Every gun case has independent factors, according to Saunders, and the level of the charge will also impact how prosecutors recommend sentencing.
“Our general rule of thumb is to recommend jail time for misdemeanor gun possession cases in district court,” she said. “When it comes to felony cases in circuit court, we generally argue for sentences that fall within or beyond the sentencing guidelines.”
The individual circumstances of a case can also impact how a judge sentences, according Warren S. Alperstein, a Baltimore criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.
“Not every defendant that appears before a judge deserves to be incarcerated for a lengthy period of time,” said Alperstein of Alperstein & Diener P.A. “Our criminal justice system is based on the very simple premise that every case is treated differently.”
Daily Record Government Reporter Bryan P. Sears contributed to this article.