Residents Fight Back Against Revival of Get Tough Crime Strategy

Tensions boiled over at a Baltimore City Council hearing Tuesday during testimony on a law that would impose mandatory minimum sentences for illegal possession of a gun

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Story Transcript

STEPHEN JANIS: Emotions boiled over at Baltimore City Hall Tuesday after testimony from citizens who oppose a new gun law that would impose mandatory minimum sentences was delayed for hours. It was an outburst that exemplified the conflict between City Hall and many residents how to fight a surging crime rate. The law proposed last week by the mayor would impose a mandatory one-year sentence on anyone found in possession of a gun near a school, church, or public building.

CATHERINE PUGH: Gun offenders in Baltimore City know, or at least they think they will not face significant amount of jail time for their offense. We believe that it is time for us to put some stronger measures in place, especially as it relates to the possession of illegal guns and to limit judicial discretion in suspending sentences for those who illegally possess guns in Baltimore City.

STEPHEN JANIS: Residents say more law enforcement is not the answer. Even a mother of shooting victims.

VANESSA SIMS: I was 36 weeks pregnant, 34 weeks pregnant with Chance, and I got shot in my back. Chance was shot in his shoulder within the womb and it came across his chest and came out his elbow. The bullet came out my stomach. Put them away forever might help, but then again just like everybody is saying, as far as with law enforcement, if we still have the same officers, it just might not help.

STEPHEN JANIS: State delegate Curt Anderson says the city’s legislative body had to do something in light of a homicide rate that was on track to set yet another record.

CURT ANDERSON: You carry a gun on the streets of Baltimore, it’s just as bad as carrying a gun on an airplane, and the federal government doesn’t play. You carry a gun on an airplane, that’s three-year mandatory minimum. You going to jail, period. Because they consider that such a dangerous instrumentality that there’s going to be a mandatory minimum for that. Why shouldn’t we protect the Baltimore citizens the same way? Our people … A 97-year-old man being murdered? A three-year-old child sitting on his steps playing, being murdered? Come on, man. As Elijah said, “We’re better than that.”

STEPHEN JANIS: A sentiment echoed by Police Commissioner, Kevin Davis.

KEVIN DAVIS: There were 318 murders in 2016. 84% of those murders were committed by someone using a handgun. As of today, Councilwoman Middleton is right. There was a murder, a drive-by this morning in her district. As of today, there are 196 murders in Baltimore, 196. 86% of the murders this year have been committed by someone using a handgun.

STEPHEN JANIS: Mandatory minimums for gun possession already exist in Maryland. One year for a second offense and five years for possession while committing a crime, which his one of several reasons council members pushed back. Councilman Kristerpher Burnett argued punishment alone does not work, and that the city needed to address the underlying conditions of poverty and inequality which drive violence.

KRISTERPHER BURNETT: I think it’s a shame that we are here today not discussing real solutions to violence in Baltimore City.

SPEAKER: Councilman, if I could for one second. Folks.

KRISTERPHER BURNETT: I wish this hearing was about affordable housing. I wish this hearing was about led paint abatement or public health access or mental health access or expanding rec centers. These are immediate solutions. These are things we can do right now. Instead, we’re talking about throwing people in jail as if prisons are a place that people come out better.

STEPHEN JANIS: Councilman Brandon Scott also criticized the bill, citing statistics that showed mandatory sentences have little impact on crime.

BRANDON SCOTT: To get back to my earlier point. As you know, today we have 196 homicides. A few years ago in 2011, we had 197 total for the year. During that time, we had a focus and a comprehensive approach to reducing violence in the city of Baltimore. Today, we were told that multiple times that this legislation just a piece of the pie. Well, we’ve been asked to vote on a pice of the pie when there is no pie. We’ve never seen the pie.

STEPHEN JANIS: Still, the committee moved forward, passing a watered down version of the bill which impose a minimum one-year sentence for a second offense. After the hearing, former Baltimore Police Commander and critic of the war on drugs, Neill Franklin, said the council erred in not allowing all voices to be heard in a timely fashion.

NEILL FRANKLIN: First, let me just comment about the process that of this hearing, how they delayed so long at the beginning for the first two and half hours. I refer to it as a filibuster. In my opinion it’s an attempt to wear down our citizens. They know that many people were here taking off time from work, changing their schedules to get here to testify, but they drag it out so people have to leave.

STEPHEN JANIS: He also casted doubt on the idea tough on crim strategies reduce violence, noting that cracking down has been tried before and failed.

NEILL FRANKLIN: All you got to do is think about this. Fair application of the law. Refer back to the DOJ investigation where it was clear and convincing evidence that there was racial injustice in application of laws, of searches that went about and the hundreds of thousands of people who were involved in that, knowing black citizens who were targeted at disproportional rate.

STEPHEN JANIS: The question remains, is anyone listening at City Hall? This is Stephen Janis and Jaisal Noor reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore, Maryland.