With less than a month left in the 2023 General Assembly session, legislation aiming to increase maximum penalties for first-time misdemeanor gun offenses may end up changing forms.
The legislation, backed by Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, seeks to raise the maximum penalty for illegal gun possession for first-time offenders who are 21 and older from three years to five; current law sets the five-year maximum penalty for offenders between 18 years old and 20.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Clippinger held a hearing on the legislation in February, but the bill was not voted on at that time and another hearing hasn’t been scheduled. The legislation is sponsored by Del. Frank Conaway, D-Baltimore City, in the House and Baltimore City Democratic Sen. Cory McCray in the Senate.
Tuesday, after weeks of no movement, the Senate Rules Committee moved the legislation out of its committee, sending it to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
"At the end of the day, it's upon leadership which bills they do let out. I can make the request, I made a request I believe on March 7,” McCray said when asked what took so long from the Rules Committee to send the legislation forward. “I'm glad that they let it out if rules, but JPR is the next step and I hope that it makes it out of JPR also.”
March 20 is crossover day in Annapolis, the self-imposed deadline for legislation to make it to the opposite chamber for debate for it to have a chance to possibly make it through session. However, legislative leadership can move bills quickly if desired, so if a bill doesn’t meet the crossover deadline, it’s not automatically dead.
A hearing has not yet been scheduled for the legislation in the Senate committee, though Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, said Tuesday he was confident the concept of Bates’ legislation would move forward.
“I feel very confident that the issue itself whether or not it’s that specific bill, but the issue itself will get a vote this year in the Senate,” Ferguson said.
“It could be. We will just have to see moving forward,” he added when asked if the language of Bates’ request could be rolled into another piece of legislation.
Meanwhile, in the House, the same sentiment seems likely. Bates asked Chairman Clippinger to bring his bill back up in committee for a vote, and when asked if that would happen, Clippinger said “it’s possible that the language could go somewhere else.”
“There are a number of bills related to penalties and handguns in the committee, and we are actually looking at them again looking to see if we are going to move that bill or move perhaps a combination of other bills,” the Baltimore City Democrat said. “We’ll know more later this week – by probably Thursday at the latest.”
Bates, the newly elected state’s attorney in Baltimore City, has spent much of the 2023 session lobbying lawmakers for his bill. During the House committee hearing in February, Bates said he recognizes the need to increase the penalties because the crime itself is a misdemeanor and therefore, the defendants are only required to serve 25% of their sentence.
“Three years has been a joke to those individuals who are carrying guns,” Bates said before testifying. “People aren’t worried about being held accountable.”
Bates said the legislation isn’t a mandatory minimum plan, only raising the maximum penalty available.
“The judges don’t always have to give it, we don’t always have to ask for it. But it is there. It is there,” Bates said.
Increasing the penalties doesn’t automatically deter crime, however, according to Heather Warnken who leads the Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore Law School. She said her organization opposes the legislation and called on lawmakers to “have the courage” to allow other policies to show results, “rather than regressing to politically expedient, yet utterly failed strategies in the past.”
“Much like the disastrous war on drugs, we will not incarcerate our way out of this problem,” she said. “We will continue to make it worse if we try.”
Bates has maintained that his policy is already deterring crime, leaning heavily on jail calls he said his staff has heard where inmates discuss the policy being debated right now.
“They are sitting there in the pods watching the news. When you go to BCDC they are going to be watching FOX talking about what’s going on with the hearing and what’s going on with guns,” Bates said.
Some critics of the legislation have also warned increasing the penalties could trigger mass incarceration. During an interview with FOX45Morning News, Bates pushed back on that concern.
"Why isn’t anyone pushing back to make it uniform? I don’t understand. There are a number of individuals the academic scholars so to speak they’re the ones who say mass incarceration. I think they’re confused about what mass incarceration really is," said Bates.