ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Larry Hogan and chief county prosecutors battled the public defender’s office and the ACLU on Tuesday over his proposal to impose mandatory minimum sentences on repeat gun offenders, with law enforcement calling the measure necessary to reduce slayings and the defense saying it would usurp judicial discretion.
“We cannot allow this senseless violence to terrorize our communities,” Hogan aide Cara Sullivan told a Senate committee reviewing the governor’s legislation. “We must have the tools to hold these violent repeat offenders accountable.”
But public defender Christine DuFour said mandatory minimums focus only on the aggravating factor of the crime and bar judges from considering the defendants’ individual circumstances before sentencing.
“Judges listen to both sides when rendering their decisions,” DuFour told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Under Hogan’s controversial proposal, a person convicted a second time of using a firearm in committing a crime of violence would face a mandatory 10-year sentence. A person convicted a second time of using, wearing, carrying or transporting a gun in relation to a drug-trafficking crime would face a mandatory 20-year sentence.
Hogan’s measure, introduced by a group of Republicans legislators, was spurred by the record 343 homicides in Baltimore last year, 88 percent of which were firearm deaths, Sullivan told the committee.
She said the governor’s call for mandatory minimums is “narrowly tailored” to address repeat offenders who use guns not for self-protection but to commit crime.
“This is a tool for prosecutors and the criminal justice system to hold violent offenders accountable,” Sullivan told the committee.
But Sen. Delores G. Kelley, the committee’s vice chair, voiced concern that the proposal would unfairly punish youngsters in blighted, violent neighborhoods who fall into the drug trade because they see no other option. Judges should be permitted to regard such dire, mitigating circumstances at sentencing, Kelley told Sullivan.
“Think of mitigation as a real part of life,” added Kelley, D-Baltimore County.
Kelley called it “foolhardy” to focus on mandatory sentences “on the back end” and not address the need to improve education and employment opportunities that would discourage youngsters from turning toward drugs and violence.
“We’ve got to fight crime on the front end,” Kelley said.
Sen. Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, also opposed the mandatory-sentencing proposal, saying judicial discretion is needed because “maybe one size doesn’t fit all.”
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said he endorses improved educational and employment opportunities but that as a prosecutor he must have strong criminal statutes to protect the public.
“There are individuals killing other individuals,” Shellenberger told the committee. “I believe it has to be a holistic approach, but that’s not what I do for a living.”
Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Wes Adams echoed Shellenberger, saying his job is “taking violent offenders off the street.”
But Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, said crime-fighting involves “a multi-pronged approach and it doesn’t just involve tougher laws.”
Adams responded that prison must be part of the solution, with its goals of rehabilitation, punishment, public protection and deterrence.
“It’s hope and sanctions,” Adams said. “It’s not just hope; it’s not just sanctions.”
Toni Holness, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said mandatory minimum sentences without judicial discretion have “been tried and proven ineffective” in combating gun violence and the drug trade.
“These policies have not worked,” Holness told the committee.
But Sens. Justin D. Ready and Robert G. Cassilly, sponsors of the governor’s bill, disagreed, saying certain sentences work in individual cases.
“It’ll work at preventing that person from committing crime for a few years,” said Ready, R-Carroll.
Cassilly, R-Harford, said a mandatory minimum would succeed at “removing bad actors from the public square.”
Hogan’s measure has been filed in the Senate as Senate Bill 197 and in the House as House Bill 101.