Md. crime bill sparks strong reactions in Annapolis in closing weeks of session

WASHINGTON — A Maryland bill designed to deal with the spike in violent crime in Baltimore has drawn fire — and gained support — in Annapolis.

On Tuesday, the “Comprehensive Crime Bill of 2018” was given a hearing before the Maryland House Judiciary Committee.

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who sponsored the legislation, defended it earlier in the day. The bill expands the cases in which a judge can grant orders to authorize wiretaps and intercept electronic communications in cases connected to firearms offenses. The bill also sets aside some funding for community-based programs in Baltimore and funds a Maryland State Police task force on firearms.

On the Senate floor Tuesday morning, Zirkin slammed critics who had referred to the bill as a form of “racially bigoted injustice.”

Zirkin said the bill was an attempt to act in response to the 343 murders in Baltimore City. Expressing frustration, Zirkin said, “Somehow, if we vote for a bill that puts — just to be clear — repeat violent offenders in prison, people who have hurt people multiple times, somehow that’s bigoted.”

Referring to the website of Progressive Maryland without naming the organization, Zirkin expressed outrage over the website’s use of the word “genocide” in referring to its potential impact of the bill.

“As somebody who lost many family members in Europe during the war in what was actually a genocide — it’s disgusting,” Zirkin said. “I condemn these folks in the strongest possible terms.”

Progressive Maryland Executive Director Larry Stafford said, in part, in an emailed statement to WTOP: “Progressive Maryland is opposed to policies that bring us back to the failed era of mass incarceration. The sentence enhancements and mandatory minimums in this legislation are a return to an era in which communities of color have suffered.”

Stafford suggested that what was needed were “smart policies” that provided such communities with jobs and opportunities and called past policies “ineffective.”

Stafford added, “As an African-American male who has seen the adverse effects of our criminal justice system, I know that our communities are suffering and have had a history that has taken us from the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade to the Jim Crow era and now an era of mass incarceration.”

The members of Progressive Maryland are not alone in their criticism of the bill. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the legislation, and the Office of the Public Defender has objected to what it said was a confusing patchwork of punishments that, in effect, attempts to restore mandatory minimums in sentencing.

Zirkin said that while the bill includes extending penalties for a variety of crimes for a second or third offense, it does not impose a mandatory minimum. The Office of the Public Defender has referred to that approach as creating a “half-mandatory minimum” and states, “We know the House can do better.”

As he began his testimony before the House judiciary panel, Zirkin repeated his insistence that the level of violence seen in Baltimore was the impetus for the bill that broadens categories of crimes and toughens penalties: “We need to do something dramatic,” he told the committee.

The Senate has already passed the package. There are less than two weeks left in the legislative session. On Monday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan urged lawmakers to pass the bill.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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