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Lawmakers will focus on Baltimore’s violence, online bullying, parental rights

Lawmakers will focus on Baltimore’s violence, online bullying, parental rights

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(Photo illustration by Maximilian Franz)
(Photo illustration by Maximilian Franz)

This article is part of The Daily Record's coverage leading up to the Annapolis Summit, an event that marks the start of Maryland's legislative session.

Read articles in the series:
Jan. 7: State budget | Jan. 1: Online harassment, gun control, cellphone tracking and more | Dec. 24: Sexual misconduct in Annapolis? | Dec. 17: Legalized sports betting? | Dec. 10: Health exchange woes | Dec. 3: Battle over beer | Nov. 26: Baltimore’s violence, online bullying, parental rights

Listen to podcast episodes from the Marc Steiner Show:
Jan. 10: Annapolis Summit - full audio recordings | Jan. 5: Bail reform | Dec. 25: The budget | Dec. 22: Sports betting | Dec. 22: Health Care | Dec. 18: 'Beer Wars' | Dec. 4: Baltimore violence

With the number of homicides exceeding 300 annually in Baltimore, the Maryland General Assembly this coming session will consider increasing funding for programs legislators say show promise for reducing violent crime in the state’s most populous city as well as strengthening penalties for illegal gun possession and witness intimidation.

Legislation will also be introduced to broaden the law prohibiting cyberbullying. Lawmakers also say 2018 will be the year oft-introduced legislation is enacted to expedite the termination of parental rights of those who conceive a child through non-consensual intercourse.

But job one for the General Assembly’s judiciary committees will be increasing public safety in Baltimore, where the number of homicides has exceeded 300 in each ofthe past three years, including 2017, legislators say.

“The first thing is going to be a comprehensive violence reduction plan that will target specific programs and activities that are working,” said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who serves on the House Judiciary Committee.

These programs must “go to where the violence is occurring,” he added.

Anderson pointed to Baltimore’s Safe Streets program as deserving of citywide expansion and increased financial support based on its early success in reducing violence through community organizations and outreach to at-risk youth and young adults. The program, run by the city’s Health Department, is in the Cherry Hill, McElderry Park, Park Heights and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods.

“We want to work with people and give them the chance to break out of the cycle of violence,” he added. “We know who you are. We have to prevent you from going to the next step of becoming an adult violent offender.”

Anderson said the Judiciary Committee will also be examining legislation to increase penalties for illegal gun possession.

The legislation aimed at combating crime, particularly in Baltimore, will be introduced either as omnibus legislation or in a package of bills, said Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, who held a hearing in September devoted to addressing ways to stanch the violence.

“That’s obviously a big priority” this session, said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County.

He added that much of the anti-crime legislation will more appropriate come before the appropriations committees, as more money is needed for the Safe Streets program as well as efforts to relocate witnesses who testify against violent criminals. On that latter score, Zirkin said legislation will be introduced to increase the prison terms for those convicted of witness intimidation, an issue that he said will come before his committee during the 90-day legislative session that begins Jan. 10.

But Zirkin acknowledged there is no purely legislative fix for the issue of violence in Baltimore.

“We want to do as much as we can, try what we can, and we need to listen to the people of Baltimore City for what they need from us,” Zirkin said.

At the pre-session hearing in September, Zirkin said a “holistic approach” is needed for crime presention, embracing stricter penalties for illegal gun possession and trafficking and greater funding for programs targeted at helping at-risk youth find alternatives to violence.

Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., a Judicial Proceedings Committee member, said he favors programs aimed at assisting and inspiring youth over lengthening prison terms, citing the punishment-laden “War on Drugs” of the 1990s.

“I think we would be foolish to step toward the tough-on-crime route,” said Smith, D-Montgomery. “You can’t incarcerate yourself out of this problem.”

But Sen. H. Wayne Norman Jr., a Judicial Proceedings Committee member, said he is not sanguine about the legislature’s prospects for ending the cycle of violence in Baltimore, a city he said he will always love but now seldom visits due to the high crime.

“I still feel like the new guy when I look at issues so complex as violence in Baltimore City,” said Norman, R-Cecil and Harford, who has been in the legislature for nearly 10 years. “You can’t legislate good behavior; you can only legislate ramifications. It’s a terrible dilemma.”

The widely hailed Safe Streets program is merely a “stop gap” measure for a city that has “lost ground” in recent years, added Norman, a self-described “very conservative law-and-order Republication.”

He said lasting programs are needed “to bring order back into the lives of the youth of Baltimore City,” especially those that foster good jobs.

In addition to reducing violent crime, Zirkin said a landmark 2013 law aimed at preventing cyberbullying of youngster must be sharpened.

The General Assembly enacted Grace’s Law, making it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $500 fine to engage in a continuous course of bullying conduct online. The law was named for Grace K. McComas a Woodbine 15-year-old who killed herself on Easter Sunday in 2012 after repeated bullying on social-media sites.

Zirkin said Grace’s law requiring continuous conduct is “too narrow” insofar as online abuse does not require the perpetrator to send a deliberately hurtful message “multiple times to have multiple effects.”

Rather, the statute should outlaw a one-time online bullying incident conducted with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her single post will likely be “liked,” “shared” or otherwise reposted multiple times, Zirkin said.

Cyberbullying is “a growing problem and we are going to be tackling it,” Zirkin said. “We are talking about the victimization of children on line.”

Zirkin also said he expects the General Assembly to pass long-stymied legislation to strip parental rights from a mother or father who conceived the child through non-consensual intercourse. Zirkin had concerns regarding earlier versions of the bill, saying it would violate the due process rights of someone to be deemed a rapist in the civil proceeding though having never been charged with sexual assault.

“This is a stronger bill for having gone through some growing pains,” Zirkin said. “I believe all the issues have been worked out. I believe we will pass the bill.”

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she is “very hopeful” that the bill she has sponsored each year will finally pass, citing the strong support of House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s. However, she noted that her hopes have been dashed in prior years.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” said Dumais, D-Montgomery.

— Daily Record reporter Bryan P. Sears contributed to this article.

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