Bobby Zirkin Exploring Ways to Curb Baltimore Violence

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (Photo by David Stuck)

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin said the legislative committee he chairs plans to tackle Baltimore’s record level of violence with a multi-prong approach.

“This is just the start of something that is exceptionally important,” Zirkin told the JT before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which he chairs, held a hearing on the topic in Annapolis Tuesday. “A lot of this is about getting information. We want to drill down further and not just take the information that is given out by bureaucracies.”

He said he is interested in exploring crime statistics, data, trends, potential changes in criminal law, general public safety, education, drug treatment, mental health and programs for juveniles, among other topics, to address the issue.

Zirkin and his committee heard hours of testimony from more than 20 people including Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

Zirkin (D-District 11) said when the General Assembly begins its annual 90-day legislative session in January, he intends to introduce a comprehensive criminal legislative package. In the meantime, he and his committee plan to hold more public meetings to elicit feedback from the public and elected officials.

“Crime clearly is not on the decline,” he said. “It’s a serious problem. It’s clear we need to put our heads together and come up with ways to attack this.”

Tuesday’s hearing, which drew a standing-room only crowd, came as the city’s homicide rate has surged since Freddie Gray died after he was injured in police custody in 2015. Homicides topped 300 in each of the past two years in Baltimore and are on pace to surpass that mark this year. There have been 245 homicides in Baltimore as of press time, up from 214 at the same time last year.

Gray’s death led the U.S. Department of Justice and Baltimore to enter into a consent decree mandating sweeping reform in the Baltimore Police Department after an investigation found discriminatory and unconstitutional policing in Baltimore.

Pugh said the consent decree will provide the city “with the framework of accountability and oversight” but that making Baltimore a safe place requires more than just police reform. She asserted that an “all-hands-on-deck” effort, including assistance from federal and state authorities, will provide long-last solutions.

Davis feels the city took a step in the right direction on Monday. He applauded the City Council’s decision to narrowly pass legislation, 8-7, to impose a mandatory one-year jail sentence on people who illegally carry guns.

Such a measure, he feels, will help keep violent criminals off the street. He said he favors a sentence an even stricter than that which is used in New York, where anyone caught carrying a loaded, illegal weapon must serve a three-and-a-half-year mandatory.

“Making Baltimore safer by reducing violence is what the BPD is focused on,” Davis said.

Current state laws already provide a mandatory minimum one-year sentence on a second handgun-possession offense.

Historically, Zirkin said, he has been against creating mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of possessing a gun illegally, asserting that judges should decide. But he noted he would be willing to explore incorporating such legislation into his package as a potential stop-gap measure.

“It’s not the answer that is going to cure things,” Zirkin said. “It may be part of a larger package that is required, but I could not prejudge that as we are sitting here and talking today. We need to hear the data.”

The hearing on Tuesday also drew varying opinions from leaders in the Baltimore Jewish community.

Constituent group #Justice11 in a prepared statement said that CASA, a group that advocates for immigrants and Latino people in Maryland, and Out For Justice, a group that advocates for ex-offenders, join #Justice11 in calling on Zirkin to “to rethink the failed strategies of the past and to work with communities around the state to create lasting change for the people of Maryland.”

Beth Am Synagogue Rabbi Daniel Burg, whose congregation is located in the predominately African-American Reservoir Hill neighborhood in West Baltimore, offered a different outlook. He proposed strengthening racial and religious relationships among people of different faiths.

Burg said the Jewish community knows what it’s like to be misunderstood and misrepresented, which makes it critical for Jews to speak out for people of color who face similar challenges.

“If any community is sensitive to the needs of those who are disenfranchised, underprivileged and marginalized, it’s the Jewish community,” Burg said. “We know well, not only our history over 1,000 years of being pushed to the margins or demonized or vilified, but this is happening right now and online on a regular basis.”

The lineup of attendees on Tuesday also included representatives of nonprofits that focus on crime reduction and social justice.

Bennet Wilcox, a community organizer for Jews United for Justice Baltimore, said before the hearing that he favors policies focused on community-driven responses to violence. He said more programs and services need to be offered to people living in poverty, which he feels is the root cause of violence.

Wilcox argued that mandatory minimums do not decrease crime.

“When those issues are plaguing the community, people aren’t in a place where they can be safe in their homes,” Wilcox said. “Things we are going to do to address that are going to be much more effective than policies aimed at mass incarceration.”

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