City gun-crime prosecutions rose in '06

Threat of federal court said to speed cases

January 25, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

In the year after Baltimore's new coordinated approach to gun prosecutions was introduced, law enforcement officials reported success yesterday.

Federal prosecutors charged almost 20 percent more people with firearms-related crimes in 2006 than in 2005. Baltimore's state's attorney also reported a slight increase in city gun prosecutions over the same period. Together, the offices said they have been able to process cases faster and win longer prison sentences for those convicted of gun-related crimes.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said at a news conference yesterday that the joint effort, known as Project Exile, had a common purpose. "Our goal is to reduce violent crime, not just to fill up federal prisons," he said.

But local, state and federal agency leaders conceded that achieving the goal remained difficult: In 2006, there were 275 homicide victims in Baltimore, five more than in 2005. The first 24 days of this year have produced 24 killings.

Under Project Exile, federal prosecutors threaten that if a defendant does not plead guilty in state court to the mandatory five-year prison term, the case will be transferred to federal court, where the penalties could be harsher and the prison time served farther away from home.

Preliminary police reports show that while violent crime might have decreased slightly overall last year, shootings, burglaries and robberies increased.

"We have succeeded in making positive changes," Rosenstein wrote in an e-mail after yesterday's news conference. "We have not yet succeeded in achieving less crime. But it is way too early to suggest that we have wasted our time and failed."

Rosenstein said a significant reduction in violent crime could take years to accomplish and that many factors contribute to Baltimore's violence.

Unlike other anti-violence programs introduced in the city - for example, former Mayor Martin O'Malley's unrealized pledge to drastically shrink the number of homicides in the city - Project Exile does not set a specific goal or timeline for reducing violent crime.

The program is successful, organizers said, because local and federal prosecutors have a better working relationship targeting some of the city's most violent criminals and prodding defendants to plead guilty by using the threat of federal prosecution.

Yesterday, a 43-year-old convicted felon was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for gun possession, largely because of federal guidelines that took into account his violent criminal history. Roland W. Douglas Jr. was arrested in January 2003 after a city officer heard a gunshot and saw that Douglas had shot himself with a .22-caliber pistol.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm told reporters that the previously reported rifts between local and federal law enforcement officials were a "myth."

Rosenstein, who was joined by Hamm and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, argued that increased publicity about Project Exile means that more people will fear the possibility of a vigorous prosecution for gun-related crime.

They pointed to the success of target letters given to defendants who might face federal charges.

A total of 36 FLIPs - Federal Letter of Intent to Prosecute - were sent in 2006. Three out of every four defendants who received a letter pleaded guilty to state charges, according to federal officials.

"The FLIP letters are working," Jessamy said, adding that the program was still in its infancy.

Last year, federal prosecutors handled 115 Baltimore City firearms cases - a 62 percent increase over 2005, according to officials.

The Baltimore state's attorney's office successfully prosecuted 283 gun violence cases in 2006, 15 more than the year before, statistics show.

Skeptics have called attention to the program's lack of focus on those who buy and sell guns illegally.

Rosenstein said that he had nothing new to report on the prosecution of so-called straw purchasers or the rogue gun dealers who sell weapons to them.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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