A court will open next month to hear cases of illegal gun possession, which Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy hopes will mean tougher punishment for gun-toting criminals.
Jessamy said yesterday the so-called "gun court" will operate one day in a week in both of the city's two District Courthouses on North and Wabash avenues. The court is expected to begin May 2.
"I hope that we get better sentences in gun cases," Jessamy said yesterday. In the past, "sometimes things fell through the cracks. This way, hopefully they won't."
The creation of a specialized court is not new. Baltimore has a domestic violence court, a housing court and a rent court, among others. But the new gun court signals a crackdown on violent criminals in the city, which has been criticized for its high homicide rate.
In January, The Sun published an analysis of thousands of court records that revealed few violent offenders receive stiff penalties for their crimes. The newspaper documented that nearly 75 percent of the people charged in attempted murders, armed robberies and other violent cases received prison terms of less than five years, despite a state law requiring that sentence be the minimum given to gun convicts.
Many defendants were not brought to trial, mainly because of witness or evidence problems.
After the article ran, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend gave Jessamy about $1 million to combat violent offenders. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who ran on a promise to reduce crime, gave Jessamy $1.7 million more to improve technology and to reform the system to give prosecutors more time to focus on serious cases of violence.
Jessamy said the new money allows her to focus on violent offenders. Nearly all cases involving handguns will be handled through her handgun unit, known as F.I.V.E (Firearms Investigation Violence Enforcement).
"We will attempt to get the maximum possible sentence in cases involving handguns because we think these cases are our priority cases," Jessamy said. "The only reason we hadn't done it before is because we couldn't afford it."
Jessamy said she hopes centralizing the gun cases into one unit, and at the District Court level, onto one docket, will mean more accountability and vigorous prosecution. "We had them spread out to nine different districts," Jessamy said. "It's very hard to keep track of everything."
The gun court, staffed by F.I.V.E prosecutors, will hear all cases involving illegal gun possession, a misdemeanor. Jessamy estimates that the court will hear about 500 cases a year.
Felony gun cases, such as those involving the use of a handgun in an armed robbery, will still be prosecuted in the Circuit Court. The F.I.V.E unit will take over most cases involving a handgun in that court and will track each outcome, Jessamy said.
Judge Keith E. Mathews, administrative judge of the city's District Court, said one distinctive component is that defendants who want to be tried by a jury will be sent to Circuit Court within two days, and the prosecutor will stay with the case.
"Lots of times, people just ask for a jury trial because they don't like the [plea] offer the prosecutor gave them," Mathews said. Defendants think they can get a better deal if they go to Circuit Court, he said.
"The chance of getting a better deal is less likely" under the new procedure, Mathews said. "Hopefully,it will create more consistency with the way handgun cases are charged and tried."