ANNAPOLIS – A bipartisan group of legislators is working on an omnibus crime bill that would permit enhanced penalties for illegal gun possession and increase funding for witness relocation programs, among other law-and-order provisions, according to those involved in the discussions.
The measure would also provide an opportunity for those convicted of some non-violent felonies to seek expungement of their criminal record after a period of years. Currently, expungement is available only to those convicted of specified non-violent misdemeanors.
Expungement would be unavailable for those convicted of violent crimes and volume drug offenses, such as dealing, said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, a member of the bipartisan group and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
The legislation, expected to be introduced in coming days, would build on or tweak measures already before the General Assembly, including one backed by Gov. Larry Hogan calling for mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes.
The anti-crime legislation is under consideration as the legislators seek to respond to Baltimore’s deadliest year, as 343 homicides were committed in Maryland’s largest city in 2017.
“We need to make major changes in the law to do our part,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “We are making significant sentence enhancements.”
Zirkin said sentence enhancements give prosecutors leeway in plea-bargain negotiations with criminal suspects that the prosecution would not have with mandatory sentences.
Sen. Michael J. Hough, a member of the bipartisan group, said the bill being discussed would ensure repeat violent criminals – “the really bad actors” — are punished while providing treatment opportunities for non-violent offenders.
“We can go after the people who really deserve it,” said Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll and a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. “We can deal with enhancements and give the prosecutors more tools.”
Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City, said he and other members of the bipartisan group are “trying to pull together a violence-reduction package” rather than seek to pass a hodgepodge of disparate anti-crime measures on a piecemeal basis.
An omnibus bill “allows people to look at the entire problem we are trying to solve,” said Anderson, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “I am encouraged by the fact we have a broad spectrum of legislators trying to get this done.”
The bill under discussion would also provide increased and multi-year funding for gun trafficking investigations and the community-based Safe Streets program, which seeks to reduce violence through community organizations and outreach to at-risk youth and young adults, according to legislators. The program, run by Baltimore’s Health Department, is in the city’s Cherry Hill, McElderry Park, Park Heights and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods.
The bill would also call for funding Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion programs, which provide support services for those suspected of low-level drug offenses and similar crimes.
The funding will mark “a multi-year commitment as we try to dig out of the crisis that we’re in,” Zirkin said.
He added that the coming crime bill would be as ambitious and bipartisan as the landmark 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act, which converted the way Maryland’s criminal justice system treats non-violent offenders from strictly punishment to a gateway for treatment.
“This is going to be an extraordinary work product, bipartisan and across the branches,” Zirkin said.
The Baltimore County Democrat added he looks forward to the bill hearing before his committee, which he called perhaps the least partisan panel in Annapolis and certainly less partisan than Congress.
“We are the last bastion of non-partisanship left in politics,” Zirkin said. “That is a story worth writing when you see the craziness of Washington.”