Baltimore’s crime problem has brought us to a juncture at which we can aim for tikkun olam — repair of the world — or we can follow the politically expedient, but unjust path of “tough on crime” policy.
The Maryland Senate passed a bill that intends to combat violent crime, but which effectively just puts more people in jail for longer. Senate Bill 122 combines a slew of harsher sentences and shortcuts taken from Gov. Hogan’s crime package — things like doubling mandatory minimum sentences and restricting defendants’ access to drug treatment — with sustained funding for community-based anti-violence programs like Safe Streets.
These programs, which make affected communities full partners in combating the violence that hits them the worst, are proven to address the root causes of violence in Baltimore, and we should support funding them. However, including these funding provisions in a crime bill geared toward increased mass incarceration is a transparent attempt to make a slew of racist policies more palatable — policies which will disproportionately harm poor black folks in Baltimore City.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the bill’s main sponsor, praises SB122’s bipartisan origins, and says that SB122 takes the best ideas from both sides of the aisle. In reality, the Hogan-Zirkin crime bill gives crumbs to the community organizations doing real violence prevention work, while doubling down on the violent, carceral policies that only reproduce the conditions of deprivation that are causing Baltimore’s crisis of violence in the first place.
Many of the bill’s supporters disingenuously claim that SB122 adds no new mandatory minimum laws. But the bill lengthens existing mandatory minimums for what is certainly a possibly serious offense — using a firearm in a crime of violence — but that by its own terms also includes situations where the weapon is inoperable or unloaded. Prohibiting a judge from distinguishing from those cases where the weapon was violently and even fatally used, versus those where the weapon was certainly fearsome but actually incapable of harm, is the core of what makes mandatory minimums patently unjust. The bill also allows prosecutors to request longer sentences than the law currently permits, including doubling maximum penalties for tack-on gun crimes, where the weapon need not be on, within reach, or even readily accessible to the offender, much less used.
These are precisely the kinds of policies that have driven mass incarceration over the past few decades, and which are enforced in a racially biased way that penalizes defendants of color more harshly than white ones. Decades of research have shown that mandatory minimums and longer sentences do not deter crime or gun violence, but instead exacerbate their root causes.
SB122 is dangerous and unjust for other reasons: It denies drug evaluation and treatment to people who are charged with crimes of violence — even if such treatment would unquestionably help and even before they are convicted. This is not only outrageously unfair, but counterproductive. Many crimes of violence — and especially the repeat offenses that are targeted by this legislation — are driven by untreated addiction.
Also, SB122 proposes to let the state petition courts to admit evidence that was obtained unconstitutionally.
Let’s repeat that: Under SB122, the state can obtain evidence unconstitutionally and have two chances to use it in court. In light of the recent history of Baltimore’s citizens having their constitutional rights violated by the police, as documented by the Department of Justice, and the corruption of the Gun Trace Task Force, this is especially distressing. This policy would further expand police powers, likely worsening existing distrust of police and prosecutors, and do nothing to move us towards a violence-free Baltimore.
Tough-on-crime rhetoric about deterrence and incarceration is politically popular, despite the perpetual failure of the policies it supports, especially in the face of epidemic gun violence. Let’s break this cycle and choose a truer path, one informed by our Jewish values of justice and peace. The Torah’s guidance on judges emphasizes the importance of judges’ independence and discernment. Let’s not use mandatory sentencing to remove judges’ ability to assess each case and person. Furthermore, the racist enforcement of tough-on-crime policy targets poor and young people of color, violating our commitment to establish fair laws and pursue justice.
Finally, we are called to repair the world. The fabric of our society is torn not only by crime, but also by the oppressive and discriminatory systems that deal with crime unjustly. SB122 will be one of these unjust laws so long as it contains mandatory and harsh sentencing, under whatever name that appears.
Let’s reject these failed policies and focus our time and effort on crafting and implementing laws that invest in effective, fair and ethical strategies for healing violence in our community. Go to bit.ly/MDelect to find and contact your state delegates today, and urge them to vote against SB122.
Dan Richman and Jon Sussman are members of Jews United for Justice’s Equal Justice Under the Law team.