The benefits of Exile

February 17, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr.'s determination to change Baltimore's murderous gun culture deserves the strongest possible support -- particularly from U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio.

The new governor is proposing legislation that would give Maryland a version of Project Exile, the anti-gun effort used to advantage in Richmond, Va. He also plans a gun violence summit at which he will ask businesses to support a public declaration of Maryland's commitment to end the killing on Baltimore streets.

These are important initiatives, but an equally critical commitment is missing: Mr. DiBiagio must decide that Project Exile's time has come for Maryland.

The whole point of the program is to move gun crime prosecutions into federal court, where defendants will face less sympathetic juries, and where convicts will face time in out-of-state federal prisons.

Unfortunately, though Mr. DiBiagio has made encouraging steps toward a more vigorous assault on gun crimes, he still declines to make a complete commitment.

This is hard to fathom.

When upward of 300 people are murdered and hundreds of others wounded every year in Baltimore's epidemic of gun violence, almost every strategy must be tried.

Here's what Exile would do: It would show criminals that carrying a gun would cost them their freedom.

In Baltimore right now, a similar threat does not exist. An overburdened court system, problems with police cases presented to the prosecutor and other, sometimes petty, disagreements have essentially left criminals free to defy authority. When criminals begin to see a real threat of prison, their behavior -- and, in time, the culture -- is more apt to change.

Until now, leadership on this crushing problem has been virtually absent from Annapolis. So Mr. Ehrlich's strategy offers new hope.

As a congressman, he made Exile a special project. He criticized then-U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, a Democrat, for handling too few gun cases and for rejecting Exile. But his handpicked U.S. attorney, Mr. DiBiagio, has handled fewer cases than Ms. Battaglia.

In recent weeks, the U.S. attorney, to his credit, has increased his commitment -- putting two more assistants to work on 30 gun cases -- but he's still falling short of a sharply focused, highly publicized Exile campaign.

There's no substitute for the federal government's power in these cases, but Mr. Ehrlich has filed a bill considerably strengthening Maryland's own anti-gun laws. For simply carrying a gun, a felon could also get 20 years.

Mr. Ehrlich's initiatives are the best hope in some time that law enforcement -- and not criminals -- could gain the upper hand on city streets. But he won't be successful without the full cooperation of Mr. DiBiagio. Exile can save lives -- and it must be given a chance to do that.

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