Separating criminals from guns

Baltimore, federal officials work on plan to keep violent felons with firearms locked up

January 03, 2006|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

Hoping to end years of contentious debate over how best to prosecute gun crimes, local and federal law enforcement officials have tentatively agreed to a broad new plan to lock up any violent felon who carries a firearm in Baltimore.

Significant prison time for the city's most dangerous gun-toting criminals is one component of a revived and expanded "Baltimore Exile" program. The collaborative effort, led by the U.S. attorney's office, aims to reduce violent crime, including the city's stubbornly high homicide rate.

All of the agencies involved are reviewing a working draft of the agreement and expect to approve it this month. An advance copy was provided to The Sun.

"Our program is not about just diverting cases from state to federal prosecution," Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for Maryland, said in an interview. "It is a unified and comprehensive strategy to employ existing and new federal, state and community resources to deter gun violence."

Any cooperation on the issue might be considered progress. The history of gun prosecutions in Baltimore has been littered with turf wars between local and federal officials.

Law enforcement officials concede that defendants on gun charges in Baltimore are routinely released by judges before trial. During that lengthy period - sometimes more than a year - they often commit other crimes, prosecutors say.

A state law passed in 2000 requires a minimum prison sentence of five years for certain gun crimes, but the city's conviction rate has been tempered by a local policy of no plea bargains on the charge.

Judges also dismiss some gun cases because of what they say is faulty police work.

At times, juries have looked skeptically on the process, acquitting defendants in cases in which a guilty finding is warranted, officials said. Even if the felon is convicted of a related charge - such as violating probation or parole - it is rare for the defendant to serve substantial new prison time.

"Right now it's perfectly clear that defendants are not intimated by lawful authority - police, prosecutors and judges," said Baltimore Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, who is in charge of the criminal division. "They are frequently offered generous plea bargains, and they still scoff at the state's offer."

A formal process to screen state cases for federal prosecution has been used since 1997, when the city state's attorney's office created its Firearms Investigation Violence Enforcement Division.

City officials, most notably Mayor Martin O'Malley, have criticized federal prosecutors for not taking more cases into U.S. District Court. Federal prosecutors have said they have taken more cases but rejected those they considered of low quality.

Gun cases in federal court in Baltimore dropped from 179 in 2000 to 109 in 2002, then rose to 158 in 2003 and remained flat until 2005, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. attorney's office. Those numbers don't account for cases with multiple defendants.

Modeled after Project Exile in Richmond, Va., the new Baltimore program would push for pretrial detention for felons found with guns. It would also increase the threat of federal prosecution in an effort to push all gun cases through the state system more quickly.

"I expect to take more cases, but we don't know how many," Rosenstein said.

Part of the strategy will be for the U.S. attorney's office to send letters to state prosecutors about the defendants eligible for federal prosecution. That technique has been used but was dropped in recent years, officials said.

Prosecutors said the letters, which are also shown to the defense attorneys, should act as an incentive to get defendants to plead guilty and agree to stiff penalties in state court. If not, they could face swifter justice and harsher sentences in U.S. District Court.

For the defendants who balk, federal marshals will be stationed in state court to haul defendants immediately into federal court, according to the draft proposal.

"We need to send a new message," Deputy State's Attorney Kimberly Morton said. "But we need to be selective and strategic about the cases we choose to send to federal court."

To help ensure that cases do not fall apart in federal court, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have agreed to investigate every state case that might be eligible for federal prosecution. Such cases are now investigated by federal agents only after they have been approved for federal prosecution, sometimes leading to the uncovering of problems much later in the case.

State and federal prosecutors will train city police officers on proper evidence-gathering techniques to address criticism from judges, according to the draft proposal.

Other components include a monthly meeting of law enforcement officials to target the city's most dangerous criminals and a public outreach effort outlining the penalties for gun crimes.

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