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Md. Senate preliminarily approves omnibus anti-crime bill

Sen. Robert A. "Bobby" Zirkin, D-Baltimore County (file photo)

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County (file photo)

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate on Thursday gave preliminary approval to omnibus anti-crime legislation that would provide enhanced penalties for gun crimes, broader wiretapping authority in firearms investigations, stiffer punishments for witness intimidation and greater funding for witness-relocation and community-based educational, vocational and social programs that offer alternatives to gangs.

The Senate could vote as early as next week on the measure, which has not yet been considered by the House of Delegates.

Senate Bill 122 essentially consolidates the many tough-on-crime bills introduced this session, as legislators seek to stanch the historic level of deadly violence in Baltimore, where 343 people were slain last year, including more than 300 by gunfire.

Gov. Larry Hogan also is backing measures to provide maximum minimum prison sentences for repeat gun offenders.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, chief sponsor of SB 122, said this week that broad-based legislation addressing violent crime as a whole is preferable to passing a series of piecemeal bills designed to give legislators political cover as they head in the upcoming election season.

“A bipartisan comprehensive approach is the right way,” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said of the bill, which he drafted in consultation with GOP senators and with representatives of Hogan, a Republican.

“There’s no magic wand to this” fight against crime, added Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “But this bill moves the needle.”

But Ricardo Flores, director of public relations for the Maryland public defender’s office said the legislation is a “massive missed opportunity.”

“We are hopeful the House can fix it,” he added Thursday. “Instead of truly robust and statewide investment in the kind of solutions that communities plagued by violence really need, it focuses on more than a dozen increased sentences, including various mandatory minimums.”

Under the measure, prosecutors could press for and judges could render enhanced sentences for those convicted of gun crimes. Enhancements would give prosecutors and judges discretion with regard to sentencing, whereas Hogan’s proposal of mandatory minimums would not allow for such leeway, Zirkin said.

Supporters of mandatory minimums applaud their certainty in sentencing.

SB 122 would also add firearm offenses to the list of suspected crimes enabling the police to seek a judge’s permission to intercept telephone and electronic communications during investigations. That list currently includes more than 22 mostly violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping, rape, child abuse, robbery and human trafficking.

The legislation would also double the prison term and fines of those convicted of inducing a victim or witness to either not testify or do so falsely. Such witness tampering and intimidation would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In addition, the measure calls for annual appropriations of $360,000 to supplement funding for Baltimore’s witness-relocation programs designed to protect those who testify against violent criminals.

Community funding

On the community front, the legislation calls for annual appropriations for four years of $3.6 million for the Safe Streets initiative — a Baltimore-based program that promotes alternatives to violence in violent neighborhoods — and of $300,000 for team-building outward-bound programs to get youngsters away from the violence.

SB 122 also calls for the creation of a Task Force to Study Maryland’s Criminal Gang Statutes, which would recommend by Dec. 31 changes to the laws to better deter, prosecute and punish gang-related activities. The task force would include representatives from the legislature, state police, attorney general’s office, the judiciary, the public defender’s office and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Zirkin likened the omnibus anti-crime bill to the landmark 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act, a similarly broad measure which converted the way Maryland’s criminal justice system treats non-violent offenders from strictly punishment to a gateway for treatment, including hospital beds if necessary.

SB 122, however, is significantly different in that its focus is on violent criminals, whom Zirkin said deserve punishment.

“People who hurt people belong behind bars,” Zirkin said. “These people should be taking up our prison beds.”

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