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Democrats, Republicans find scant common ground in Maryland crime debate

ANNAPOLIS — Senate Democrats and Republicans Thursday drew lines in the debate on improving public safety.

The two parties laid out their agendas during separate meetings with reporters. And while both sides agree work is needed to reduce violent crime there seem to be few areas of bipartisan agreement on solutions.

“Over the last two years the challenge around violence has been unprecedented and at a level we thought was truly unimaginable and clearly related to what we’ve experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Senate President Bill Fergson, D-Baltimore. “It’s created an environment where many of our fellow Marylander’s mental health and stability is simply not there.”

The solution, Ferguson said, requires a comprehensive approach.

“Marylanders are crying out for solutions right now that cross partisan and political divides,” he said.

Republicans counter that policies favored by the Democratic supermajority result in more repeat violent offenders on the streets.

“Democrats control Annapolis with their super majority,” said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel and the Senate Republican leader. “They own the crime policies. They’ve tried their woke, progressive ideas and their policies have failed miserably.”

Public safety will again be a top focus of lawmakers. Gov. Larry Hogan, citing seven years of 300 or more murders in Baltimore, renewed a demand during Wednesday’s State of the State address that the General Assembly pass his legislation.

Hogan’s package includes bills that toughen sentences for violent offenders who use firearms as well as making judicial actions in criminal sentencing more transparent.

The 15-member Republican caucus largely backs Hogan’s plan but lacks the numbers to pass the bills or block Democrats.

The Senate has passed a compromise version of Hogan’s violent crime bill, but each time it died in the House of Delegates.

“We have legislation that is right here and ready to go. It does not return us to the ’80s, ’90s mass incarceration or any of that stuff,” said Sen. Michael Hough, R-Frederick. “This is specifically targeted at repeat violent offenders.”

The proposal is identical to the version passed by the Senate last year.

“This is ready to go,” said Hough  “We could pass this this week. Instead of having press conferences and talking about things.”

Ferguson said a broader approach is needed.

Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the Senate will take up legislation on judicial transparency. The House of Delegates also has a work group on judicial transparency.  The Senate effort is also likely to include what he called “prosecutorial transparency.”

“Right now we don’t have access to aggregated information,” said Smith, adding that the bill makes the information public. “So you can understand from soup to nuts how prosecutions work and what the results are. That will give us more of an indication of what’s going on, what’s working in our state and what isn’t working.”

Other components of the plan by Senate Democrats include prohibition of so-called ghost guns, behavioral health programs, including those in public schools, and a state effort to track data on gun-related crimes and the weapons involved.

Democrats also plan on focusing on understaffing of state parole and probation officers.

Republicans blamed what they called “catch-and-release” legislation passed that reduces the amount of time violent criminals spend in jail.

“They don’t learn their lesson,” said Sen. Bob Cassilly, R-Harford. “They go right back in the public and, having not learned their lesson, they engage in more violent behavior. We can’t field enough probation agents to basically act as arresting officers. Probation agents are supposed to be overseeing a group of people who have something to lose, who feel they learned their lesson and want to move on with their lives.”

Republicans said the plan offered by Democrats does little to immediately address violent crime.

They’re nibbling around the edges and ignoring the immediate and pressing needs of out-of-control crime,” said Simonaire.