By Dayvon Love, Special to the AFRO
In many of the policy conversations that are happening today about crime and violence there is a tendency lump people who find themselves in the midst of crime and violence, together with those who are drivers of crime and violence. There are people who carry illegal firearms for protection from people who they know are engaged in gun violence. There are people who participate in gun violence because they do not believe the police can properly protect them. These are the kinds of complex issues that plague our community that many of our lawmakers do not understand.
We are at a moment where there is a broad realization of the negative impact of over-incarceration on the neighborhoods that are hardest hit by violence. There has been a broad public acknowledgement that incarcerating people who are in close proximity to crime and violence does tremendous harm to Black communities. While there have been many states that have decreased sentences on drug offenses, on the issues of violence, legislators are still putting in legislation that enhances penalties for violent offenses as a crime reduction strategy. In Maryland, State Senator Bobby Zirkin crafted Senate Bill 122, which at its core seeks to address the crime problem by increasing minimum sentences on violent gun crimes in some cases from 5 years to 10 years, and maximums in some cases from 20-40 years.
There are three issues that need to be addressed in order to understand why increasing sentences for gun crimes are bad for the community and have a disproportionately negative impact on Black people.
The National Institute for Justice conducted a study that found that the certainty of being caught had a much bigger deterrence effect on violent crime than the length of the sentence. The Sentencing Project produced a report that states that sentence enhancements and mandatory minimums led to Black people receiving tougher sentences than their White counterparts, and led to a 22 percent increase in the prison population.
Additionally, even though crime has gone up and down over the past 40 years, the rate of incarceration has consistently gone up. This means that there is no empirical data that suggest that longer sentences or more people in jail effectively deter violence.
The second issue to keep in mind is that if you talk to police officers they will tell you that they know who the most violent criminals are. They just don’t have the capacity to get those folks off of the streets. The problem arises because of things like insufficient witness protection infrastructure, and corruption in the police department that, in some cases, participate in crime and violence (like the Gun Trace Task Force in Baltimore which was a unit within the BPD that was robbing people, selling drugs and contributed to violence).
The third issue is that the criminal justice system has disproportionately touched working class Black people who are often relegated to communities that are more prone to violence. This leads to many Black people being charged and arrested for things that they did not do.
Defendants are usually over charged and are encouraged to avoid going to trial and to take plea deals to avoid excessive jail time. As Senator Zirkin wrote in the Bristol Herald Courier on April 18, “Innocent people sometimes plead guilty to crimes they do not commit.” What this means is second time gun offenders are a combination of people who did commit a gun crime and people who were overcharged and plead to a lesser gun charge. This a problem that is the product of a racist criminal justice system.
Sentence enhancements cast a wider net that is likely to increase jail time for people that just happen to live in closer proximity to communities that struggle with violence. This leaves intact the core of the people who are the drivers of violence and catches those who are on the periphery. Not only does this approach not actually address crime, but it negatively impacts the working class Black people who happen to get caught up in the system.
Given what we know from the 2016 DOJ report on policing in Baltimore, we know that there are a lot of people who have charges that are not the result of actually committing an act of violence, but being in an environment where violence happens. Usually these are Black people who are over policed and over charged.
Zirkin says in his op-ed that many of the the people who have committed murder were charged with multiple violent gun crimes. What this says is that the police are not delivering solid cases to the State’s Attorney in order to effectively prosecute murders. Zirkin’s sentence enhancements are an attempt to get around an inept and corrupt police department’s inability to do their job at the expense of the people who are not drivers of violence.
If Zirkin were serious about reducing crime then he would have focused on increasing law enforcement’s ability to get good cases that will put murderers away, instead of the politically expedient approach of increasing sentences.
Frankly, Bobby Zirkin is not qualified to lead any effort to address the violence in Baltimore City. There are many people who have been working on the issue of violence prior to the homicide count going beyond 300. I have never seen or heard of Bobby Zirkin addressing himself to the people in the community who work on these issues prior to the number of homicides exceeding 300. It’s quite interesting to me that he would decide to care so much about violence in Baltimore on an election year when no such concern was expressed previously. Also, for him to lead on anything that would address Baltimore City is condescending. There is no evidence that he has any particular insight or perspective that is sufficient enough that he should lead this effort.
Dayvon Love is a Baltimore resident and the director of policy of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Black think tank.