Larger federal role sought in sentencing violent criminals

Tough anti-gun efforts succeed where local court systems fail

February 19, 2000|By Michael James and Caitlin Francke | Michael James and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Michael Keith Jefferson was arrested with a handgun and was on his way to Baltimore District Court when federal prosecutors took over his case. Now he's in prison for 24 years with no chance of parole.

That's because Jefferson, who had been convicted in city courts five times for felonies but never got more than a four-year sentence, was prosecuted under Project Disarm, an aggressive federal program that Baltimore's mayor and others say could be the answer to bringing down the city's murder rate.

But the program, created partly in response to a runaway city crime problem and the woeful lack of effective gun prosecutions in Baltimore courts, has created swirling public debate over its future. Political pressure has been applied by some who feel the federal government needs to step in and play a much bigger role in local crime fighting.

"I understand that it is not necessarily the feds' job, but if the state is not doing it, somebody has to," said U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who is calling for federal prosecutors to take nearly all of the city's cases involving felons possessing guns. "When the state is not doing it, the feds jump in."

Disarm's mission, much like similar federal programs in 35 other cities, is to go after repeat offenders who are caught carrying guns. The theory behind the programs is simple -- target violent felons and put them in jail before they kill someone. Last year 96 felons in Maryland were indicted under no-parole federal prison statutes for carrying handguns; sentences for those crimes averaged about 7.8 years.

"We're trying to go after the people who are likely to become killers," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John F. Purcell, who coordinates Disarm prosecutions in Baltimore. "Targeting people with the worst records is the smartest way to try and reduce violent crime. We don't have to wait until these people commit a murder; we just have to find them with a gun."

But Disarm's indictment numbers are small in the context of city crime. Last year, for instance, Baltimore police arrested 2,144 people on various gun charges -- more than 50 percent of which were later dropped or resulted in sentences of a year or less.

The high sentences and high conviction rate -- over 90 percent -- of the federal Disarm cases stand in stark contrast to firearm cases prosecuted in city courts. Baltimore prosecutors, overworked and understaffed, have not aggressively pursued gun cases in past years.

In bringing their cases, U.S. prosecutors generally use the federal felon in possession of a handgun charge, which carries a maximum prison term of 10 years. More is added if the convicted person qualifies under armed career criminal statutes.

Maryland has a similar gun law on the books -- but Baltimore prosecutors almost never enforce it. A review by The Sun of hundreds of court cases shows that prosecutors routinely drop the felon-in-possession charge, generally as part of plea-bargain negotiations.

The analysis showed that about 75 percent of those charges in Baltimore Circuit Court were dropped or placed in the inactive file between Jan. 1, 1997, and March 31, 1999. Of about 300 people charged with the crime, including felons accused of drug distribution and attempted murders, about one in six received a total sentence of five years or more.

Much of the political buzz around federal gun programs arises from the highly successful Project Exile in Richmond, Va. That city has seen a 65 percent reduction in its homicide rate, which many attribute to Exile's federal prosecutions of those who illegally carry guns.

But even Exile has been questioned by the federal judiciary, which concluded in an opinion last year in the Eastern District of Virginia that the program "despite its laudable purpose represents a substantial federal incursion into a sovereign state's area of authority and responsibility."

There are currently Disarm- or Exile-style federal gun programs in nearly three dozen cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Memphis, Tenn., Milwaukee, Wis., and Gary, Ind.

They go by many different names, including "Cease-Fire," "Rapid-Fire," "Triggerlock" and "Target." But in each case, the goals are essentially the same, federal firearms agents say.

"Whether it's Disarm or Exile, the program is nothing new as far as what the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been doing," said Special Agent Art Gordon, chief of the Baltimore ATF office's weapons enforcement division. "It's basically local communities using federal firearms laws to come up with a solution to their violent crime problem."

Gordon said Disarm differs from Exile in that it began as a more selective program, targeting only "the baddest of the bad" for federal prosecution. Since its beginning in 1994, Disarm has lowered the requirements, and criminals now qualify for the program if they have only one prior felony conviction, vs. two when the program began.

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