Even with community opposition in blue states like Maryland, racially tinged rhetoric and fear mongering are being used to roll back criminal justice reform
STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland. The Trump administration wants to go back to ‘get tough’ policies, “lock them up.” How is this affecting other states, and how is it playing out on the local level? We’re here to tell you and show you what’s happening.
While the Trump administration’s Justice Department has been unambiguous in its efforts to roll back reforms, the question remains of: how will federal policy impact local laws, particularly in blue states like Maryland? But if recent moves by the state’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan are any indication, local officials may not provide a buffer to renewed efforts to push law-and-order measures.
LARRY HOGAN: This year, let’s crack down on those violent criminals who use guns to commit crimes by passing tougher minimum sentences. And pass truth and sentencing legislation to require that repeat, violent criminals serve their full sentences without the possibility of suspension, parole, or probation.
Well we’ve got quite a bit of money for law enforcement, and you’ll see the details of the budget tomorrow when it comes out, but again, as we do every year, we added more money for law enforcement in Baltimore.
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s because Hogan has introduced a package of bills adding stiffer sentences for possession of a handgun, charging more juveniles as adults, and adding penalties for gang membership.
It is a stark departure from his Justice Reinvestment Act, passed just two years ago. Legislation intended to lessen the burden of incarceration and dedicate more money toward jobs programs for former inmates.
SPEAKER 3: I think we’ve got a violent crime issue and we need to tools to address that now.
STEPHEN JANIS: But inside the Senate Judiciary hearing room it was hard to find any hint of reform.
S. SHELLENBERGER: This is the part where we’re seeing 353 homicides in Baltimore City, we’re seeing homicides all across this state and they’re being committed with handguns.
STEPHEN JANIS: The committee is chaired by Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who’s been a consistent roadblock to police reform. Last year The Real News was there, when Zirkin blocked allowing a single civilian on internal police disciplinary boards.
BOBBY ZIRKIN: It’s a little concerning to me on multiple levels, but as a precedent, that a county would come down here on issues that are unrelated to this and say, “Well, we didn’t like the way our bargaining with Baltimore County’s teachers went, so state legislature, can you pass a bill to undo this?”
STEPHEN JANIS: And in the past he has been a huge recipient of cash from the bail bonds industry. But still, some members of the committee did indeed push back.
DOLORES G. KELLY: Repeat offenders are really victims of the collateral consequences of having been arrested and imprisoned in the past. They can’t get jobs. That’s why a lot of them are trafficking in drugs.
SPEAKER 7: [We have a problem] there because I think you would agree with me that we do have some bad situations, and we do have bad officers who … And it’s come up recently, and proven, they plant drugs, they plant guns. That’s a concern.
WILLIAM SMITH JR.: Are we really being smart? Are we fiscally smart with the way that we’re channeling our resources. Is it really worth investing in prisons and longer sentences, or maybe shifting that money and investing up front in more … Something that we can insure that the next generation doesn’t get caught up in the cycle that we see and we find so many of our folks in today.
WAYNE NORMAN: Yes, and I think very real concerns about how much this might cost the people of Maryland. And if anybody has any figures … Has anybody ever done a study or put a value on these 343 people killed in Baltimore City? Is there a dollar sign that we can relate that [can] maybe satisfy my friend?
STEPHEN JANIS: Which led to a heated debate that seemed to split along racial lines.
NEIL FRANKLIN: Mandatory minimum sentencing is not an effective strategy. The proof is in the pudding from the mistakes that we’ve made over the years to what got us to become the number one incarcerator in the globe, the United States. This is a mistake of the past.
WES ANDERSON: I don’t know what other committees gonna approach the social welfare programs that might help in some of the things that you’re talking about. But the focus of this particular committee, among other things, is how do we handle this particular tool of the entire approach of our legislature.
NEIL FRANKLIN: I’m going to slightly disagree with you, and I think a part of this is still a multi-pronged approach. We don’t just sit here and determine that the only way to do this is tough laws. We did just the opposite of what you’re saying last year.
STEPHEN JANIS: Including in this exchange where Senator Robert Cassilly presses community activist Nicole Porter of the Sentencing Project about her data.
ROBERT CASSILLY: Did the community generally say, “Look, send Junior back in for another ten years into the community because we have a great level of tolerance for his violence?” Or is the community generally saying, “Lock him up?” What’s the community, that the perpetrators are coming from and going back to, what are they saying?
NICOLE PORTER: I think there’s a mix of voices within communities that have high rates of incarceration, are disadvantaged, and also experience [crosstalk 04:55]
ROBERT CASSILLY: There’s mixed rates, there’s mixed voices …
NICOLE PORTER: Well let me provide …
ROBERT CASSILLY: …Do we have any studies? Any studies about …
NICOLE PORTER: Yes!
ROBERT CASSILLY: … The victims, that’s what I’m asking about is studies for the victims.
NICOLE PORTER: Let me provide you with a couple of studies from the communities that are most impacted by this. That 66% of juveniles who are sentenced to lengthy prison terms actually witnessed a shooting. Not a shooting that they committed, but a shooting that they were exposed to prior their coming [crosstalk 05:19]
ROBERT CASSILLY: But that’s not really where I was coming from. That’s not … You’re not answering my question …
NICOLE PORTER: Well those children are coming from the communities that you claimed to be most concerned with. They are coming from communities with incredible amounts of violence, and with high rates of residents who’ve been disappeared behind prison walls, because of the lengthy prison terms that are already on the books and that have increased …
ROBERT CASSILLY: Gotcha. [crosstalk 05:39] This is just anecdotal stuff, you’re just bringing anecdotal stuff. I was really just looking for studies.
NICOLE PORTER: No that’s not anecdotal stuff. I’m providing you with statistics from a peer reviewed study of …
ROBERT CASSILLY: Peer reviewed …
NICOLE PORTER: People who are not only …
ROBERT CASSILLY: What’s the name of the study?
NICOLE PORTER: It was a study by the Sentencing Project which is a well-regarded … which is the organization I’m representing —
ROBERT CASSILLY: Oh.
NICOLE PORTER: — which is a well-regarded organization that provided research and information regarding criminal justice.
ROBERT CASSILLY: Okay. Thank you.
STEPHEN JANIS: And he was joined by others who questioned people from the community about the legitimacy of their views.
JUSTIN READY: You’re talking about the trauma inflicted on people when they go to jail … What about the community that is afraid right now? And what about what’s been happening to young people that are having these things happen to them? Can you just … Can you comment on … Can you give us kind of an “on the other hand,” or your perspective on that?
SPEAKER 16: Of course. Absolutely. We know that we’re not talking about just letting people walk away from whatever crimes that they’ve committed. But we’re talking about sentences that are just extremely, just extreme sentences.
STEPHEN JANIS: Of course, Republicans are not alone in failing to peruse real reform. Recently, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh vetoed a $15 an hour minimum wage. A move advocates said would reduce poverty, and address the underlying root causes of crime. And she also approved a separate law, to impose mandatory minimums for gun possession. We actually asked Hogan about the community concerns regarding his ramp-up of cops and prisons.
SPEAKER 17: [How do you respond to community concerns that more money is needed for jobs, not cops?]
LARRY HOGAN: Well I don’t think that’s true, but like I said, this is the … We’ve increased state police funding, we’ve increased money to Baltimore City and other police departments and …
SPEAKER 17: Rather than programs like jobs and things like that …
LARRY HOGAN: What’s that?
SPEAKER 17: Jobs, economics and programs [inaudible 07:25] would help long term, other than Baltimore [inaudible 07:27]
LARRY HOGAN: Well sure, I just … I don’t know if you were paying attention but we’ve had some of the fastest job growth in American and added 130,000 jobs to places including Baltimore and we’re going to … That’s continuing to be our primary focus.
STEPHEN JANIS: Finally, Dayvon Love, of the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, made the case that going backwards on criminal justice reform was not an option for the communities who must live with the consequences.
DAYVON LOVE: This is essentially a way to try to get folks that are proximate to the kinds of violence that we see in our communities, in order, quite frankly, to get the numbers down from 343 to 250. And to me, that kind of quantitative difference is frustrating, because the impacts of the violence that exists in our community is not just about the numbers, it’s about the impact that it has on the families.
STEPHEN JANIS: This is Steven Janis and Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland.