A deadly pattern

Our view: When will lawmakers finally shut the revolving door for gun offenders?

December 02, 2010

A story over the weekend by The Sun's Justin Fenton had an all-too-familiar ring to it: Police spot a man on a busy downtown street walking in a manner suggesting he may be carrying a concealed weapon. When a patrolman approaches to investigate, the man pulls a gun and fires, seriously wounding the officer. After back-up units track down and arrest the alleged shooter, it turns out he's a felon out on parole with a lengthy record of prior gun-related convictions.

The case of 29-year-old Franklin Gross Sr., the suspect in Saturday's shooting, is only the most recent example of a pattern that has frustrated police and prosecutors for years: violent, repeat offenders who are handed substantial sentences at trial yet serve only a fraction of their time. Before Saturday's shooting, Mr. Gross had been charged with four previous gun-related crimes, including armed robbery and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Yet despite receiving sentences in 2008 totaling 17 years, he was back on the streets just 26 months later.

To police, prosecutors and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, it seems obvious that, given the seriousness of Mr. Gross' crimes, he should have been locked up longer. That he was able to regain his freedom so quickly was largely due to plea bargains, concurrent sentences, credits for good behavior behind bars and other procedures that grease the prison system's revolving door for gun offenders. The result is that nearly half the people arrested on gun charges in the city go on to commit worse crimes of violence.

That's why Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III plan to press the legislature again this year to stiffen the penalties for first-time illegal gun possession from the present 30 days to a minimum of 18 months, with up to 10 years in prison for the most egregious cases. They also want to reclassify illegal gun possession from a misdemeanor to a felony and increase the penalty for felons caught with an illegal gun to a mandatory minimum of five years with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

In years past, lawmakers have been reluctant to impose broad mandatory sentencing guidelines, fearing to deprive judges of their discretion to tailor sentences to the unique set of facts presented by each case. Lawmakers can't know all the aggravating or mitigating factors that might influence a sentencing decision, so they rightly depend on judges who have all the information at their disposal to weigh those elements.

Legislators' reluctance make sense when the issue involves defendants convicted of nonviolent property crimes or low-level drug offenses such as possession. The overuse of mandatory minimum sentences in such cases has led to a huge increase in the inmate population nationally, straining the capacity of state and local governments to fund new prison construction or prevent overcrowding. That has left thousands of nonviolent offenders behind bars serving long mandatory sentences — people who otherwise might be released without substantially endangering public safety. Making matters worse, longer mandatory sentences for offenses involving crack compared to powder cocaine have led to tremendous racial disparities in our justice system.

But gun offenders are in a different category than people picked up for possessing small amounts of narcotics or other nuisance crimes. For one, gun offenders are much more likely to use an illegal weapon in a crime of violence, and after they are prosecuted and imprisoned they're also much more likely to commit more acts of mayhem upon release. Gun violation penalties that amount to little more than a slap on the wrist, such as those now in place, are a feeble deterrent to future crimes.

Baltimore has made significant progress by targeting the relatively small number of violent repeat offenders — fewer than a thousand by some estimates — who commit most of the city's serious crime. Mayor Rawlings-Blake wants to send a clear signal that being caught with a loaded, illegal firearm will get you substantial jail time, even for first offenders. Bad guys with illegal guns represent the greatest threat to public safety, not only in Baltimore but across Maryland, and authorities need to use every available tool at their disposal to deter, disarm and punish them. It's about time the laws of this state began to reflect that reality.

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