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Senate passes omnibus crime bill; attention shifts to House

Steve Lash//March 12, 2018

Senate passes omnibus crime bill; attention shifts to House

By Steve Lash

//March 12, 2018

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate on Monday night passed omnibus, bipartisan 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.

With the Senate’s 36-8 vote, attention shifts to the House of Delegates, which has yet to consider the bill that 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, a Republican, praised the Democratic-led Senate’s passage of what he called a “balanced, common-sense measure.”

“We cannot and will not continue to let violent criminals terrorize communities across our state, and this legislation directly targets repeat violent offenders to get them off the streets,” Hogan said in a statement. “Now it’s up to the House of Delegates to pass this bipartisan bill, get it to my desk, and show Marylanders that we are serious about fighting violent crime in our communities.”

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, chief sponsor of Senate Bill 122, said the legislation is not “a magic wand” but represents a broad-based way to “move the needle” in addressing crime, particularly gun violence.

The Maryland public defender’s office, however, has voiced concern with the bill, saying that “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 earlier this year for mandatory minimums would not allow for leeway, said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Supporters of mandatory minimums laud 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.

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.


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