State gives city funds to fight guns

Baltimore will get more than $1 million to combat problem

`It rips us apart'

Jessamy will hire 8 new prosecutors, more support staff

February 02, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend gave more than $1 million yesterday to state and city prosecutors, as well as police, to crack down on gun-wielding criminals, promising "no more excuses" for violence on Baltimore streets.

The funds will allow Baltimore's State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy to hire eight more prosecutors and additional support staff to focus on gun crimes. Two lawyers will also be given to the attorney general's office to track gun purchases and investigate illegal gun sales.

"Gun violence destroys families. It rips us apart as a community," Townsend said at Baltimore City Hall after a meeting with the mayor and top justice officials. "Only when we stop it can we have the safe schools and the strong families and the jobs that we deserve."

At the same time, Mayor Martin O'Malley said he was prepared to give Jessamy as much as $2.3 million as long as there are fundamental changes in the city court system.

In particular, he wants her prosecutors to staff the courtroom at the city jail so it can be used as a clearinghouse for minor cases. O'Malley said he wants 50 percent of the cases coming into the system to be handled within 24 hours after arrest. Now, he said, many cases that end up being dropped linger in the system for months.

It "wastes precious resources, diverting prosecutors and judges' attention away from prosecuting serious gun crimes," he said. "There is nothing more important to the city's comeback than getting violent gun offenders off the street."

As part of Townsend's plan, Jessamy will draft a new office policy directing her prosecutors to seek the state's mandatory minimum sentence of five years for using a handgun during a crime, state officials said. An analysis by The Sun of almost 3,000 court records showed that her office routinely drops the state's tough gun charge in armed robberies, carjackings and attempted murders. As a result, most gun-toting criminals in Baltimore receive prison terms of less than five years, allowing them to return quickly to the streets, free to commit more crimes.

After the meeting yesterday, Jessamy said she was very pleased with the new funding.

"I'm creating positions as we speak," she said. "We will act very expeditiously."

Most of the new prosecutors will be placed in the specialized handgun unit known as FIVE for Firearm Investigation Violence Enforcement.

With the additional city money, Jessamy said she also expects to begin charging suspects full-time at the city jail, taking the function from police in an effort to improve the quality of criminal cases. Her office is conducting a pilot project in four of the nine police districts in which prosecutors decide what charges to bring.

Jessamy has asked for $6.2 million from the state for investigators, paralegals and more prosecutors and computer equipment. That request is pending.

Federal prosecutors will join the attack on gun crime. Townsend said that U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia will double the number of cases she takes to federal court under a project called DISARM. Last year, federal prosecutors indicted about 100 people, mostly from Baltimore. The average sentence received was about 7.8 years.

Other proposals coming from yesterday's meeting include the creation of a city gun court that would handle all firearms cases. While that idea is being considered, John H. Lewin, coordinator of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council -- an oversight committee formed to steer reform of the city's courts -- said that gun cases will be prioritized and tracked through the system. Data will be routinely analyzed, he said.

"It means [we will be] watching the cases," he said . "[Gun] cases will be receiving special treatment."

In a sign of increased demand for accountability from the justice system, $75,000 has also been allocated to Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy Research to analyze how the courts handle gun cases.

"We are making sure that we end the gun violence and stop the criminals from carrying guns," Townsend said.

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