Federal prosecutor takes aim at criminals

Guns: U.S. attorney uses strong U.S. firearms law to put city's repeat offenders back in prison.

October 29, 1999

IF Baltimore's next mayor wants to crack down on inner-city crime -- and both candidates say that's a top priority -- he might look to replicate a program started by U.S. Attorney Lynn A. Battaglia that seeks long prison terms for gun violators.

Ms. Battaglia's efforts led this week to the conviction and sentencing of two Baltimore thugs on gun-carrying offenses. Each man faces at least 15 years behind bars -- with no parole.

Under federal law, just carrying a gun lands felons in prison for a long time. Bernard Anthony Bey, a convicted drug dealer, had a gun on him when arrested for running a red light. It cost him dearly. He won't get out of prison for 19 years.

Melvin "Little Melvin" Williams, once one of the city's drug kingpins, was convicted this week of beating a man with a pistol. His gun-carrying violation carries a mandatory sentence of at least 15 years -- without parole.

Putting repeat offenders in jail is pivotal to reclaiming Baltimore's streets. Ms. Battaglia's program, called DISARM, uses tough federal gun laws to target troublemakers.

In conjunction with the city Police Department, an even more intensive program, DISARM Plus, has cut the crime rate in some of the city's worst areas.

Officers on the street are passing out cards to spread the word that felons risk federal prison time if they get caught carrying a firearm.

While DISARM and a similar program in Richmond, Project Exile, have impressive records, the situation is less encouraging in the city's own courthouse. Some 1,700 gun arrests are made every year. Not enough are prosecuted aggressively. That's a mistake.

Any felon convicted of a gun violation in state court must serve at least a year in jail; state judges can mete out three-year sentences to first-time gun violators and up to 10 years for repeat offenders.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has her own gun-enforcement unit. But it only has five staffers, thanks to a lack of budget support from the city. Still, the unit has racked up 205 handgun convictions since its inception in late 1997.

Think what could happen if the next mayor -- or state officials -- gave her the staff to target handgun violations.

The surest way to get lawbreakers off the street is to prosecute all gun charges -- without exception. Then we might see a significant change in the culture of violence on Baltimore's streets.

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