Mayor calls for changes in gun law enforcement

Funds for prosecutors linked to effort to cut city's murder rate

February 01, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley called on the city's top prosecutor yesterday to reorganize her office so she can enforce the state's tough gun law and bring to justice violent gunmen.

At the same time, the mayor said he was prepared to free extra funds for additional staff as long as State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy focuses on ways to reduce the city's persistently high homicide rate. He urged Jessamy to ensure that those charged with using a gun to carry out their crimes receive the state's mandatory minimum sentence of five years behind bars.

Jessamy "needs to do business differently," O'Malley said. "What we should be doing is enforcing the law out there and then prioritizing prosecutions."

O'Malley made the remarks in response to an article in The Sun on Sunday that analyzed the sentences of 1,660 defendants charged with using handguns in hundreds of attempted murders, carjackings and armed robberies over a two-year period.

The analysis showed that Jessamy's prosecutors routinely drop the tough gun charge with the mandatory sentence. As a result, most violent offenders -- 63 percent -- receive prison terms of less than five years, allowing them to return to the streets sooner and commit more crimes.

The failure to enforce the gun law is sure to be addressed today at a meeting in City Hall convened to discuss strategies for attacking gun violence in the city, where more than 300 people have been murdered every year for the past decade. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and other state and city justice officials are expected to attend.

O'Malley, a former prosecutor who once sought Jessamy's job, said that too many weak and unimportant cases clog the system. Those must be weeded out early so prosecutors can tackle violent offenders.

"I am willing to provide additional resources for the [office] but [Jessamy] has to be willing to do business in a different way," O'Malley said. "Otherwise we are just making an already ineffective system larger and more expensive."

Jessamy repeated her argument yesterday that her office cannot effectively prosecute all the gun offenders without additional funds. She has asked the city and state for $6.2 million to hire more staff as well as for more computers to track cases.

"I am trying, but I do need help," Jessamy said yesterday. "We do a lot with a little."

She said that she is willing to comply with O'Malley's requests that more cases be thrown out before they enter the system. But she said she needs $765,000 to hire more prosecutors to review cases full time at the city jail. Prosecutors are evaluating cases at four of the city's nine police districts in a pilot program.

Jessamy said it is virtually impossible to expect that every person charged with using a handgun will get the required five-year prison term. Often her prosecutors have to accept a plea bargain on a lesser charge because a victim or a witness failed to appear in court to testify.

Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel pledged recently to help Jessamy monitor witnesses -- cooperation she said she has not had in the past. Since Jan. 1, Jessamy has been tracking the outcome of every gun case.

Interviews with state lawmakers yesterday suggest that more funding for Jessamy might be forthcoming. However, many said they want her office to be more accountable.

"I think we need to tie whatever we give her to absolute results," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "I want to see [criminal] charges that are going to stick. Fewer cases may get to court, but they will be the more serious ones, the ones they are prepared to prosecute."

The fact that many of the shooting and killing victims in the city are tied to the drug trade does not mean their cases should be given any less attention, Hoffman said.

"They are entitled not to be gunned down on the street," Hoffman said. "The [main] obligation of government is maintaining public order. Unless you can maintain public order, you do not govern. Period."

For Sen. George W. Della Jr., judges and prosecutors must be more aggressive.

"Who's running the system? The people that are out there perpetrating these crimes or the police, the prosecutors and the judges?" the Baltimore Democrat asked. "These people that come in and out of the system know how it works. They know going in they are not going to do any serious time."

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