In an effort to stem the tide of violent crime that has swept the city's streets, Baltimore has joined a national effort to use federal gun laws to help convict and imprison career criminals and drug traffickers.
Under the program, which has been named Project Achilles, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will work with Baltimore police officers to identify hard-core street criminals who can be prosecuted under the federal "career criminal" statute, which has stiff prison sentences for career felons who use guns.
"The federal cavalry has arrived," said Richard D. Bennett, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland at a news conference yesterday. "This program uses federal law to help local and state law enforcement personnel to deal with the repeat and violent offenders who plague our streets with firearms."
Under a number of laws passed since 1984, criminals with a history of violent crimes can receive stiff mandatory prison sentences without chance of parole or probation if they are convicted of mere possession of a gun.
For example, a first gun offense calls for a mandatory sentence of five years; a second for a sentence between 10 and 20 years. If the criminal used a gun during a violent or drug-trafficking crime, there is no possibility of parole or probation.
Federal officials claim that by targeting career criminals, they can reduce street crime. "Research that we have done shows that 7 percent of the criminals are responsible for about 60 percent of the crimes," said ATF spokesman Thomas Hill.
Federal officials cautioned, however, that the new task force is not going to reduce street crime in Baltimore "overnight." Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who attended yesterday's conference, agreed, warning that the program "will not be any quick magic-wand solution" to Baltimore's crime problem.
Still, the mayor said, the cooperative effort "helps law enforcement a great deal."
Since May, 10 ATF agents have been working with the Baltimore police department to identify criminals who can be prosecuted under the federal statutes. Fifteen cases have been referred to the U.S. Attorney's office for prosecution, and eight of those cases have resulted in the indictment of 10 people.
Daniel M. Hartnett, the ATF deputy director, said that the new program has resulted in the conviction of 1,864 career criminals nationwide who have been sentenced to a total of 17,680 years and 10 life sentences.
Other Achilles Task Forces are located in Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Miami, Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Washington, Atlanta, Albuquerque, N.M., Boston, Dallas, Houston, Omaha, Neb., and San Francisco.