With less than two weeks remaining in the Maryland General Assembly’s 2018 session, a bill was introduced by Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin (D-11th) to curb the violent spike of crime in Baltimore.

The Maryland Senate’s bipartisan Judicial Proceedings Committee recently approved the Comprehensive Crime Bill of 2018 and sent it to the full state senate. Zirkin, who chairs the committee, brought the bill before the House Judicial Proceedings Committee at a hearing in Annapolis on March 27.

Gov. Larry Hogan urged lawmakers this week to pass the bill. Besides Hogan, the bill has statements of support from Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association and the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.

Violent crimes are the most pressing issue addressed by the bill, particularly those committed with a firearm – of which the majority are handguns, shotguns or rifles — by repeat offenders.

Of the 343 people killed in Baltimore last year, 88 percent were killed with a firearm, and 86 percent of the victims and 85 percent of the suspects identified by police had prior criminal records. Half of the victims and suspects were previously arrested for gun crimes.

These figures showed that the average homicide victim in Baltimore last year had 11 previous arrests, and the average homicide suspect had nine previous arrests.

“The homicide figures, especially those from Baltimore, demand a significant response,” Zirkin said. “We need to do something dramatic to stem this tide. So this bill, focused on violent offenders, would increase the maximum sentences a judge can impose for dozens of violent offenses.”

Under the bill, the potential sentence for using a gun while committing a crime of violence or a felony for the second time would increase the maximum sentence from 20 to 40 years.

“The higher maximum sentences give judges and prosecutors discretion based on individual cases, offering the state more leverage when negotiating plea bargains,” Zirkin said.

Col. Byron J. Conaway of the Baltimore Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division agreed.

“Baltimore City is plagued with gun violence,” he said. “Both victims and perpetrators continue this vicious cycle. Part of the solution is to be tougher on crime. There is no incentive [for offenders] to change their behavior. They continue to perpetrate crimes or become victims.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said the bill, if passed, will strengthen the current law regarding repeat violent offenders.

“This bill gives judges the option of going from a maximum of 20 years to a maximum of 40 years, for example, for an armed robbery,” he said. “Hopefully, that person will be in jail longer, and that third robbery will not happen.”

But Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-15th) voiced objections to the bill. “We need to be smart on crime, not tough,” she said. “I know of no data that shows an increase in the years of incarceration will deter crime.”

She also referred to the Justice Reinvestment Act took, which required more than two years to enact. “This Comprehensive Crime bill is moving much too fast,” she said.

Members of several statewide advocacy groups attending the hearing were also critical of the bill.

“This is a very big bill; some of it is very progressive,” said Jerry Kickenson of the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition. “But the bulk of the bill is an increase in penalties. Just increasing the length of sentences does not reduce crime, it increases financial costs to the state and it disproportionally affects people of color.”

He said his group would prefer seeing more funding allocated for Upward Bound, an academic and cultural enrichment program, and greater resources put into crime prevention, community policing and fire arms tracking.

Bennet Wilcox, Baltimore community organizer for Jews United for Justice, agreed. “We are strongly opposed to this bill because it doubles down on tough-on-crime policies that we know do not actually provide a solution to crime,” he said. “Harsher sentencing does not deter crime.”

In response to objections raised at the hearing, Zirkin said, “I invite delegates and others to put their ideas down, to suggest changes to this bill. … I agree with many of the advocacy groups that when a person is released from prison, we need to do more to help prevent repeat violent offenses with firearms. …

“Some people have also said this bill will lead to mass incarceration. It won’t,” he said. “Repeat violent offenders are a small number. Violent crimes are an action of choice. The increased maximum sentence – given at the discretion of judges and prosecutors – is a threat of significantly longer sentences, which will act as a deterrent to repeat offenders.

“Statistically, individuals who are repeatedly using firearms for robberies or drug trafficking are the next murderers in Baltimore City,” Zirkin said. “So in addition to seeking to deter repeat offenders, we must protect the public.”

Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.