Guest Opinion: Comprehensive crime bill will take us back decades

By Caryn York

Executive Director, Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF)

Gov. Larry Hogan last week published an op-ed in the Sun on SB 122, “The Comprehensive Crime Bill of 2018.”

To quote the governor, the issues of violence in Baltimore, and across the State, “did not happen overnight…and cannot be fixed overnight…a targeted approach is needed.”

As a Baltimore City native, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree with the governor on this point, and this point only. Yes, the issues that plague Baltimore are the result of decades of economic divestment in the city.

Residents lack access to employment, education, housing, and other necessary resources that encourage economic stability, while discouraging crime and recidivism.

And yes, these issues will not be “fixed” overnight. However, the governor, and Sen. Bobby Zirkin’s actions run contrary to this statement. The process by which SB 122 was brought forward was very much “overnight.”

I have long heard my elders remind me, “Haste makes waste.” Nothing could be more true of SB 122.

Haste makes waste

This process began with a crime package from the governor, which was adamantly opposed by community advocates due to the mandatory minimums, enhanced sentences, and lack of investment in community programs.

In response, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee quietly assembled a working group that did not include representation from Baltimore City. Following the drafting of this bill behind closed doors, a 40-page amendment, sponsored by Committee Chairman Zirkin, was added to an existing bill that stuffed various legislative priorities into his re-organized package. Each of these bills, heard separately and out of context, also received its own opposition, and the speed with which this bill was voted out of committee to the floor left no room for input.

Community input would have resulted in a truly “targeted” approach that did not lump “use” of a firearm into the same category as “wear, carry, and transport,” a naive and amateur approach to criminal justice that will undoubtedly cause the same discriminatory result — the mass incarceration of the black and brown residents of Maryland. Further research and the use of data would have showed that Baltimore has had a 30% decrease in crime, comparing the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of 2018.

Fortunately, the majority of Baltimore City senators voted against this ill-conceived and hurriedly assembled legislation.

Dangerous narratives

This legislation, bipartisan in name only, still reflects the dangerous narratives that were once championed by both political parties and led to 72% of the Maryland prison population being black, while we only make up 31% of the state population.

To dive deeper, in 2015, the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative released a report called “The Right Investment? Corrections Spending in Baltimore City,” which found that Maryland was spending $288 million a year on incarcerating people from Baltimore.

More specifically, Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park have the most people in prison of any neighborhoods in Baltimore; Maryland taxpayers spend $17 million locking up people just from those communities.

Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park also have the highest rates of unemployment and lowest rates of educational success and life expectancy in the entire city. Similar dynamics exist in the majority of city neighborhoods, particularly in poor communities of color.

With only 42% of residents in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester working, Baltimore faces an unemployment crisis of epic proportions. In addition, according to Progressive Now’s scorecard for Maryland, African-Americans are experiencing an unemployment rate that is twice that of state average.

Dialing back progress

Baltimore already leads the state in prison admissions. SB 122 will only result in more black people from Baltimore City being imprisoned—more families torn apart and more communities destabilized, with no evidence to show these enhanced sentences will actually deter crime.

If we are so proud of the Justice Reinvestment Act or the Second Chance Act, both of which the governor mentions in his op-ed and which JOTF championed, then why are we rushing to impose legislation that dials back the progress made under those pieces of legislation? Instead, SB 122 increases prison sentences and expands police powers at a time when police corruption and abuse are headline news and community distrust is at an all-time high.

The House Judiciary Committee is currently working on a more palatable version of the Senate bill. Yet, the bill still contains several mandatory minimums, sentence enhancements, and makes the funding for Baltimore City discretionary. This Judiciary version is not better.

Baltimore City deserves better—we deserve a better process and we certainly deserve a better product. We are counting on our city delegates to oppose SB 122.

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