Steve Lash//March 18, 2020
//March 18, 2020
ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s effort to enact mandatory minimum prison terms for repeat gun offenders and to discourage judges from handing down reduced sentences was rebuffed during an abbreviated General Assembly session, thanks to the Democratic-led legislature’s opposition to mandated punishments and diminished judicial discretion, even as homicides continue at brisk pace in Baltimore.
Before adjourning Wednesday — 19 days early due to a looming pandemic — lawmakers did pass legislation enabling prosecutors in felony trials to introduce prior statements by witnesses who fail to show up to testify at the proceeding due to suspected witness intimidation by the defendant.
Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr. said the legislature fell short of its goal of passing comprehensive measures to combat violent crime in Baltimore and other cities.
Smith, D-Montgomery, said the effort was hampered by the leadership’s decision to cut short the normally 90-day session amid calls from Hogan and health professionals to limit public gatherings to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“I don’t think anyone has walked out of here thinking that we’ve done enough,” said Smith, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “(But) we’ve done our best with the time given.”
House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, voiced regret about the General Assembly’s failure to pass significant anti-crime legislation.
“We still haven’t addressed the issue of crime in the state,” Kipke said after the legislature adjourned. ‘It’s one of the disappointments for me this session.”
Smith opposed the Hogan-backed legislation on mandatory minimums – Senate Bill 273 and House Bill 356 — from the outset, saying judges must have discretion to sentence defendants based not only on the crime but on any mitigating factors, including a rough and impoverished upbringing.
Smith described the strategy in blocking the measure, saying “we deflected and defended against mandatory minimums.”
Del. Jon S. Cardin, a House Judiciary Committee member, called mandatory minimums “a terrible idea” that undermines judicial discretion.
“We train judges well,” said Cardin-D-Baltimore County. “We trust that they’ll do the right thing.”
The Maryland Judiciary came out in strong and ultimately successful opposition to a Hogan-backed bill to require a state commission to compile the violent-crime sentences handed down by each Maryland circuit court judge.
The Judiciary said SB 272/HB 355 could spur harsher sentences from judges fearful of being criticized by the governor as toll lenient on criminals.
Hogan’s office testified that the proposed reporting requirement was intended to provide information to the public about what occurs in the courts and was neither intended to diminish judicial discretion in sentencing nor spur mandatory sentences.
But the Judiciary responded that Hogan’s call for greater judicial transparency was belied by his public criticism of what he has labeled the Judiciary’s lenient sentencing of violent criminals. The Judiciary also noted Hogan’s call for judges to be held accountable.
Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford and a sponsor of the Hogan-backed bills, said the General Assembly’s failure to pass strong anti-crime legislation flew in the face of its members’ pre-session pledges to combat the violence gripping Baltimore.
“I don’t think we did very well,” said Cassilly, a Judicial Proceedings committee member. “We talked about the crime, but in the end I don’t feel the rhetoric was equal to the product. We tried.”
The General Assembly did pass legislation to ease the burden that prosecutors often face in Baltimore when witnesses fail to show up at trial for fear of deadly retribution from the defendant or his or her agents.
Under SB 64/HB 40, prosecutors could introduce at trial the absent witnesses’ prior statements by showing with a preponderance of evidence that the defendant “engaged in, directed, or conspired to commit the wrongdoing that procured the unavailability” of the witness.
Sen. Jill P. Carter opposed the bill, saying it would enable prosecutors to introduce damning out-of-court testimony too easily, without a clear showing of witness intimidation and in the absence of cross-examination by the defense.
“We are allowing the prosecutor to say the witness is unavailable,” Carter said before the Senate’s vote.
“You’ve got to make sure the state is not cutting corners,” added Carter, D-Baltimore city. “This (bill) is too loosey-goosey with the claim of unavailability.”
The chief sponsors of the legislation are Sen. Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, and Del. Erek L. Barron, D-Prince George’s.
Hogan’s office did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the fate of his crime-fighting proposals.l