Exile gun felons

October 16, 2006

Federal and local law enforcement officials are once again working together to imprison gun felons for a long time. Their newfound cooperation returns the focus to gun violence instead of the tiresome debate over whose job it is to lock up these criminals. In a city with a shamefully high number of murder victims, most of whom died by the gun, there should be little disagreement over the importance of prosecuting gun crimes.

In the first six months of this year, federal prosecutors indicted 65 gun felony cases as part of the Project Exile program, a 50 percent increase over last year. The threat of federal prosecution also led 18 defendants to plead guilty to state gun charges that would imprison them for a mandatory five years. The benefit of federal prosecution can't be underestimated, but for every gun case successfully prosecuted in federal court, there are four times as many prosecuted in state court, and too many of them fall apart or result in less than the supposedly mandatory five years.

City prosecutors lost more gun cases at trial last year than they won (72 not guilty, compared with 59 guilty). They also dropped weapons charges or deferred prosecution against 213 defendants. And of the 268 defendants convicted of gun charges last year, judges gave lesser sentences than prosecutors recommended in about half the cases.

Those statistics are a sobering reminder that most people charged with gun crimes skate through the state court system in Baltimore. One reason is that Maryland's mandatory five-year gun law isn't having the desired effect - putting gun felons in prison.

Why? Because many defendants choose to take their chances at trial rather than plea and get stuck with a mandatory no-parole sentence.

Judges, not surprisingly, object to mandatory minimum sentences, but prosecutors, too, have come to realize they need more flexibility in plea bargaining these cases.

Directing more gun cases to federal prosecutors can't provide the sole relief. Gun violence researchers have found that police strategies that focus solely on seizing illegal guns lead to more guns recovered, decreases in crime and fewer gunshot injuries. But arresting gun criminals and seizing weapons won't have a lasting impact if defendants aren't convicted and imprisoned.

And convictions depend on solid police work, community cooperation and strong prosecutors. Defendants convicted of illegal gun possession should be dealt with harshly at the outset if Baltimore officials hope to impede the gun violence that is maiming and killing people on the streets.

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