A culture war

April 21, 2003

NOTICE TO BALTIMORE felons: If you're arrested with a gun, you're likely to be tried in federal court. The conviction rate there is 95 percent. Sentences average over eight years. Visitors will need an airplane ticket.

Welcome to Project Exile, a campaign to cure Baltimore's gun-driven epidemic of murders. Exile focuses on felons in possession, hoping to change the gun culture by making it very costly to be caught with a weapon.

The city in general and criminals in particular need to hear that Exile has arrived. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a forceful backer of Exile, promises a media campaign financed by private businesses to publicize the program. That campaign must start soon to drive home the new reality.

With only a quarter of the year behind us, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio has accepted 62 gun cases -- nearly three times as many as he did in all of 2002. Of the 31 cases tried to completion so far, 29 resulted in guilty verdicts with sentences averaging longer than eight years, well above the average three-year sentences for gun cases in state courts.

Often, convicted felons do their time in a distant federal facility, hence the name "Exile." The hope is that those who thoughtlessly carry guns and use them with little fear of the consequences will begin to change their behavior.

Anecdotal evidence is promising. When Mr. DiBiagio at first declined to make Exile a priority of his office, police noticed even more criminals were carrying weapons.

His very welcome change of heart -- urged by Governor Ehrlich and Mayor Martin O'Malley -- represents the best hope in some time for a real decline in gun use.

This effort gathers momentum despite the General Assembly's refusal to increase penalties for some gun violations, an initiative Mr. Ehrlich had called Maryland's version of Exile. Nevertheless, Mr. DiBiagio's determined use of the federal sanctions gives Baltimore a powerful new ally.

At the same time, the Baltimore police and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's staff are arresting and prosecuting gun cases, too, resulting in 456 convictions in 2002 compared with 259 in 2000. In a newly activated "war room," Ms. Jessamy's prosecutors work with state Probation and Parole officials to jail those who have violated the terms of their release. Often these are habitual offenders thought to be responsible for most of the city's violent crime. Relatively minor offenses by members of this group will lead, under the war room concept, to enforcement of the longer underlying prison sentences.

To change the gun culture, Mr. DiBiagio's impressive start needs reinforcement on the public relations front. It also needs the backing of programs that offer criminals, particularly the alarming number of new recruits, alternatives to prison and violent death.

With 80 murders so far in 2003 -- five more than this time last year -- Exile arrives none too soon.

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