Reeling from a Murder Spike, Baltimore Grasps at a Gun Bill

Originally published in CityLab on September 22, 2017.
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Across the country—from Louisiana to Iowa to Massachusetts—so-called “mandatory minimum” sentencing is increasingly out of favor. These are laws that require certain penalties for people convicted of specific drug or firearm offenses. A powerful bipartisan consensus has emerged around the idea that mandatory minimums are ineffective (and expensive) deterrents, as well as racially discriminatory and unlikely to reduce recidivism.

In part, the bill’s success reflects the pressure that the city’s legislators are under to do something—anything—to curb the violence. As the Brennan Center for Justice has reported, violent crime is at historic lows nationally, but no such decline can be found in Baltimore: As of this writing, 253 people have been murdered since January. In 2015, Baltimore’s violent crime rate was more than four times the national average, and its murder rate was more than 11 times the national average. Right now, Baltimore’s murder toll exceeds that of New York City, which has about ten times the population. 

“I by no means think this is a comprehensive solution to gun violence,” says city councilman John Bullock, widely seen as the deciding vote. He recognized the public’s concern with mandatory minimum sentencing, which is why he introduced the amendments to weaken it from its original form. Councilman Eric Costello, who voted for the bill and has said the amended version is “not as strong” as he would have liked, declined a request for comment; Council President Jack Young, who also backed both versions, did not return requests for comment.

Critics of the bill are frustrated with the city council’s rationale to pass a measure that has no evidence to support it.

“The easiest thing for elected officials to do is pass a new criminal law, make sentences longer, add mandatory minimums,” says Molly Gill, vice president of policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “That may give them a feeling of accomplishment, but it’s not going to solve these very complicated problems of why we have violence, gun crimes, and murders.”

Mark Kleiman, an NYU public policy professor and an expert on drug and criminal justice issues, calls the $1,000 fine “gibberish.” Quoting the infamous politician syllogism, he says, “We must do something, this is something, therefore we must do it.”

Among those who testified against the mandatory minimum bill this past summer was Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the Baltimore nonprofit Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. He points to the support from the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business advocacy group, as key to the bill’s success. “I suspect they are trying to attract more wealthy, white people to invest and come to Baltimore, and the murder rate is merely an impediment to them doing business,” Love says. “They could care less if this bill would have the possibility of destroying the lives of black people who become more prone to violent activity because they were sucked into the criminal justice system.”

Illegal gun possession is highly correlated with the future risk of committing a murder, and Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, does think illegal gun possession is a serious crime and is a major contributor to Baltimore’s homicide rate. Ultimately, though, he did not support the measure passed by the city council, principally because he says there’s no evidence that it would be effective. “It’s rather surprising that there is no solid research that answers the question of what happens if you adopt a mandatory minimum for illegal gun possession,” he says. Most existing research has focused on drug-related arrests.

Webster thinks the city does need to have better consequences for illegal gun possession, but that the consequences should be driven by better arrest and prosecution, rather than at the tail end of the sentencing process. In Baltimore only about 40 percent of arrests for illegal gun possession end up in a conviction or guilty plea. A Baltimore Sun analysis found that about one-quarter of cases are dropped even before defendants go to trial. And though the Baltimore Police Department has improved its homicide clearance rate in 2017 compared to recent years, Webster notes that the past two years have led to many unsolved murders and nonfatal shootings. “When shooters are not locked up, they are emboldened and ripe for being shot themselves,” he testified recently in Annapolis.

Proponents of mandatory-minimum sentencing have taken to placing blame on Baltimore city judges. “At the end of the day, we don’t impose sentences and don’t implement bails,” State’s Attorney Mosby said last year. “We can make a recommendation. But it’s not on us.” In an op-ed that counseled against “reflexively recycling the regressive strategies of the 1980s,” former deputy attorney general of Maryland Thiru Vignarajah noted that leaders who blame the courts are essentially echoing tactics deployed by President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly tried to discredit the judiciary, even threatening judges at times.

Yet this month in Baltimore, the city council voted 8-7 in favor of establishing a new mandatory minimum penalty for individuals caught carrying an illegal gun. The proposed legislation originally would have imposed a one-year jail sentence on first-time offenders caught carrying a gun within 100 yards of places like churches, schools, and parks. After public protest, the bill was weakened to add just a $1,000 fine to existing state law, which already imposes a one-year minimum sentence on second-time offenders. The legislation (in both its original and final form) was backed by the city’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, along with Mayor Catherine Pugh and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby—who all also advocated unsuccessfully over the last two years for new statewide mandatory minimums.

“Mandatory minimum sentences are shortcuts we don’t need as prosecutors,” says Vignarajah. “We should be able to walk into a courtroom and explain why a sentence is appropriate and have faith in our judges to determine where a specific defendant falls on the spectrum between a violent repeat criminal and someone who needs a second chance. Mandatory minimums are unduly rigid and strip away discretion that judges need.”

Todd Oppenheim, a public defender in Baltimore who opposes the mandatory minimum measure, says that in his experience most defendants who would be affected by the bill are young and/or first-time offenders, not the “repeat violent offenders” who tend to dominant the debate. “The possession of a handgun is considered a violent offense, but I don’t see it as one because I know the circumstances under which my clients come into possession of it,” he says“Like drugs, a lot of my clients don’t understand that you can possess something without it being on your body.”

The Baltimore Police Department, by contrast, emphasizes that in the past 18 months, 60 percent of the 605 convicted gun offenders had had more than half their sentence suspended by a judge, and more than 100 people were arrested on handgun charges at least twice. The mandatory minimum “isn’t about mass incarceration or locking up more people,” Commissioner Davis testified in July. “It’s about holding the right people accountable.”

Still, there are alternative ideas.

With a new grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Johns Hopkins’s Daniel Webster is currently working with the state’s attorney’s office and the police department to develop new training protocols that will help strengthen the prosecution of illegal firearms. “First we have to have good policing that is done in a way to identify illegal gun possession without doing illegal searches and unconstitutional policing,” he says. “And then we need to have solid evidence that is useable to bring convictions.”

Dayvon Love emphasizes investments in community-based solutions, “where violence is prevented by people who are in closest proximity to the violence.” Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle’s recommendations include more funding for Safe Streets Baltimore, which uses a public-health strategy of employing ex-offenders as to mediate neighborhood disputes. In studies, the model has shown to be effective, but Baltimore’s program has drawn controversy in the past due to allegations of criminal activity by program workers. Love also cites efforts like the Baltimore Ceasefire movement and local violence prevention centers.

Gill, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, points out that the number of full-time law enforcement officers per 1,000 Baltimore residents fell 14 percent between 2003 and 2015, and even more in 2016. “Mandatory minimums are incredibly expensive—prison is not cheap,” she says. “It might be a better investment to put more squad cars on street corners than to jack up sentences.”

In other words, the answer doesn’t have to be a year in jail, but the assumption that there will be some consequence to breaking the law. “Right now a lot of people figure I’ll just take my chances,” says Webster.

Kleiman of NYU thinks policymakers should be considering things like 9 p.m. curfews. “It’s the perfect sanction in the sense that it’s salient, it’s aversive, and it doesn’t interfere with family duties and employment,” he says.

Ironically, on October 1, a major new statewide law—the Justice Reinvestment Act—goes into effect, and it will significantly reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders throughout Maryland. The law, which was signed in May of 2016, was widely seen as the broadest criminal justice legislation to pass in decades, representing a major shift away from “War on Drugs”-era policies.

“There’s a progressive movement to move away from incarceration for nonviolent offenses,” says Oppenheim. “But when it comes to violent offenses—and the definition of violence I think is subjective—leaders still harbor the old-school mentality. They don’t have any real ideas, and it helps them get elected.”

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Why DeRay Mckesson’s Mayoral Candidacy Will Be Defined Far More By Education than Policing

Originally published in Slate on February 12th, 2016.
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N
ews of mayoral runs usually don’t merit the attention that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson got when he announced his candidacy for Baltimore’s top job last week. His campaign had leaked the story to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian in advance, and within 24 hours, he had already crowd-funded $40,000.

National publications began speculating how Mckesson’s candidacy would elevate police reform onto Baltimore’s political agenda, the implication being that it wasn’t already a top priority in the race. It absolutely is: Nearly 10 months after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, and after one of the most crime-ridden years Baltimore’s seen in decades, few topics are more prominent. So what, exactly, will Mckesson bring to the election?

Mckesson joins 12 other Democrats competing in April’s primary, the winner of which will almost certainly go on to win in November. But though Mckesson’s large Twitter following may be eager to see how he’ll carry his national Black Lives Matter work into Charm City, I suspect they’ll be in for a surprise. What’s going to distinguish Mckesson probably won’t be policing and criminal justice at all—it’ll be education.

Nationally, school reform is an issue that confounds political partisans, opening fault lines among progressive allies and uniting constituencies that typically never agree. Reform is even more complicated in Baltimore; the city stands as a distinctively unusual landscape for education politics next to other, similar urban centers.

Already, Mckesson has signaled that he plans to campaign on education, which isn’t surprising since that’s where the 30-year-old cut his professional teeth. After graduating college, he spent two years teaching sixth graders in Brooklyn followed by several stints with education nonprofits, reform organizations, and administrative district jobs. But Mckesson brings to the race some national baggage, which he’ll have to confront as he tries to make his case to Baltimore voters. Specifically, residents have already raised questions about his ties to national reform groups like TNTP and Teach for America, as well as his enthusiastic support for charter schools.

So far, Mckesson has largely dismissed these concerns. He’s reminded the public that he’s spent several years working with the Baltimore school district as an administrator focused on staffing personnel. Still, he’ll have to reckon with local education politics that have changed substantially since he left his job back in 2013.

For example, a few months ago a coalition of charter operators filed a lawsuit against the school district over funding—a highly controversial move that’s divided Baltimore public school families. The city is also in the midst of closing down more than two-dozen schools, and the next mayor will need to determine what becomes of the vacant buildings. Will they be sold off? Will they be leased to charter schools? Will they be repurposed into some other civic entity? These decisions are sure to intensify an already-fraught K-12 landscape.

The main thing to grasp about Baltimore’s education environment is that it’s pretty unique. All charter teachers are unionized, unlike most charter employees in other states. Moreover, Maryland charter schools—which are predominately mom-and-pop institutions, not larger charter-school chains—are subject to more oversight and regulation than charters elsewhere. While reformers say they’d like to see Maryland charters freed from these legal constraints, supporters of the status quo say that tougher oversight explains why Maryland charter schools have never wrought the kind of fraud, mismanagement, and abuse found in other jurisdictions.

What Mckesson will soon have to decide is whether he is committed to keeping Baltimore’s charter sector as is—with unionized teachers, a close relationship to the school district, and substantial oversight—or join the coalition of charter operators and national education reform groups that seek to significantly revamp chartering in Maryland. That decision may also force him to choose between competing groups that may try to back him. Some national charter networks have expressed disinterest in setting up shop in Baltimore, namely because they don’t want to work within the school district and employ unionized teachers. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a D.C.-based organization, consistently ranks Maryland as the worst charter school state in the country, largely for these same reasons.

Yet within Baltimore, both traditional teachers and charter teachers alike strongly support Maryland’s charter law—and rallied together last year to protest reformers’ attempts to change it. The Center for Education Reform, another national group, hired lobbyists to push for loosening Maryland’s regulations. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the fight is expected to resurface again soon.

On Friday, Mckesson released his education campaign platform—a substantive list of proposals ranging from expanding early childhood education to strengthening college and career readiness programs. He calls for increasing the school district’s transparency (a common theme among all the candidates) and more equitable state financing. He notably doesn’t mention anything about unions or charter schools, but Mckesson won’t be able to shy away from that charged debate for long.

When news broke that Mckesson would be running, some Baltimore activists, particularly those who have been fighting for police reform, protested on Twitter—a surprise to some outside the city, given his national stature within Black Lives Matter. Among other things, locals argue that Mckesson lacks sufficient relationships with the communities he now seeks to lead.

In many ways, their critiques mirror those that veteran public school educators level at Teach for America—that outside young teachers without roots in the cities they work in displace those who have more of a right, and need, to be there. And despite Mckesson’s early campaign efforts to brand himself as a “son of Baltimore,” some local activists have said they’ve rarely seen him fighting alongside them in the causes they’ve been invested in for years, like building independent black institutions and weakening the Maryland police union. (Mckesson defended himself against these charges, saying “there are many ways to engage in the work.”)

A few weeks ago, 11 Democratic candidates gathered together for a mayoral forum to discuss their political vision for Baltimore. One audience member asked the candidates, “How will you stop police from killing black people?” Answers varied somewhat, but all in all, they were broadly similar. The candidates spoke of strengthening civilian review boards, getting body cameras on all police, transforming the way Baltimore recruits and trains officers, establishing more transparent accountability systems, pushing for more police to formally live within the city, mandating cultural diversity training and regular psychiatric evaluations, and calling for convictions for those who break the rules.

In other words, Mckesson is entering a crowded field of candidates who likely share many of his police reform policy goals. Some hope that Mckesson’s candidacy will encourage others to articulate even sharper campaign proposals. Perhaps, and that would be a good thing. But it was already an issue that no candidate was really ignoring—and certainly one that no future mayor can expect to avoid.

So despite to Black Lives Matter’s national work, that aspect of his candidacy is unlikely to be too disruptive in the race. It’ll be where his campaign intersects with the school-reform movement, and specifically how local education politics rub up against his national ties, that could really shake things up.

How Baltimore Is Reacting to the Start of the Freddie Gray Trials

Originally published in VICE on December 1, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel M. Cohen

It was cloudy and chilly outside the Mitchell Courthouse in Baltimore on Monday morning at the opening of the trial for William G. Porter, one of the six police officers charged for the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. The other five implicated officers will have their own trials over the next several months; the prosecution reportedly sees Porter as a “material witness” who could be useful against the others. Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby charged the six officers in May after weeks of protests and riots that upended the city.

The trials begin at a fraught time for the city, as Baltimore has seen a dramatic spike in homicides this year, with 311 murders so far in 2015—100 more than the city saw in all of 2014. Meanwhile, police killings of people of color continue to generate outrage across the country, leaving Baltimore activists to wonder exactly how much they’ve accomplished since Gray’s death and the tumult that followed.

The “Baltimore Uprising”—as local activists call it—began just over a year ago, on November 25, 2014. That’s when protesters gathered downtown to protest Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, not getting indicted. Local activists recognize that the death of Freddie Gray carries as much significance for the national Black Lives Matter movement as other high-profile killings, and on Saturday, they held their own rally in solidarity with activists in Minneapolis and Chicago.

It’s been challenging for Baltimore activists to keep up their energy and momentum over the past seven months, but residents and public officials are bracing for a new wave of energy as the trials for the officers accused of ending Gray’s life heat up.

“The people from West Baltimore’s poorest communities are still reeling from how the Freddie Gray incident was handled by the powers that be,” says Perry Hopkins, an organizer with Communities United, a local grassroots organization. “The majority want justice, but openly say [that] if officers only get a slap on the wrist, this city had better be prepared to experience another thwack on the hand. They mean it.”

When I asked Hopkins if he thinks that means the community will begin protesting again if the officers are not convicted, he said, “Yes they’ll protest…and in many different fashions.”

A few handfuls of activists convened with signs and banners at the courthouse Monday, where metal barricades blocked off the areas protesters typically use to congregate. Some grew angry at what they felt were attempts by city officials to thwart their First Amendment rights. Still, those within the courtroom could hear protesters’ chants from the street.

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Photo Credit: Rachel M. Cohen

Sharon Black, a leader with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly, told me that it feels like there’s a great deal of confusion right now, even among some of the most committed activists in town. “We’ve been phone-banking, and our sense is that people are a little bit confused about what’s actually going on,” she said. This makes sense given the complicated legal process, and the fact that the presiding judge imposed a strict gag order last month on the lawyers involved in the case.

“People are sort of saturated with news, and there’s a bit of wearing down in terms of energy,” Black said. “The bigger response from the public may only come after the trials have concluded.”

Legal experts have expressed doubt that the officers will be convicted, and city officials are preparing for the likelihood that residents could revolt if they feel justice isn’t served. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says his department has spent nearly $2 million on new police riot equipment—including vans, protective gear, shields, and helmets—since the unrest over Gray’s death this spring. Davis replaced the former Baltimore police commissioner, Anthony Batts, and the police department underwent a significant reorganization over the summer.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told the Baltimore Sun that city officials are having “constant conversations and planning sessions” to prepare for, and prevent, potential riots. “Community members certainly don’t want the city to erupt in violence again,” she said. More than 250 businesses were damaged after the April protests, almost 150 vehicles were burned, and roughly 60 buildings were set on fire.

“People in Baltimore still want to see justice for Freddie Gray, that has not changed one bit since April,” said Andre Powell, a protestor who stood outside the courthouse Mondaymorning. “Yes the mood was much more heightened directly after the incidents but people are closely watching what’s going on.”

Porter, the first officer on trial, has been charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office. Officer Porter reportedly asked Gray if he needed a medic while traveling in the police van, but thought he might be lying to avoid going to jail when Gray said yes. The officer is a 26-year-old Baltimore native who’s been on unpaid leave from the Baltimore Police Department since posting his $350,000 bail earlier this year.

A spokesperson for the Baltimore police union on Monday told VICE they were unavailable to comment on the trial. In general, however, the union has expressed outrage at the indictment of the six officers, and has called on State Attorney Marilyn Mosby to recuse herself from the case. The president of the union, Gene Ryan, called the city’s $6.4 million settlement deal for the family of Gray, approved in September, “obscene.”

On Monday, the court proceedings were focused on selecting a panel of impartial jurors for the case. Porter’s attorneys have argued that finding a truly fair jury will be impossible in Baltimore, and that the trial must be held elsewhere.

There is new evidence to suggest that Marylanders outside of Baltimore hold rather different views on the Gray protests than those who live within the city. A recent pollfound that Baltimore voters are more likely to say that racism and the lack of jobs are the biggest reasons for the unrest after Gray died. Voters across the state, on the other hand, are more prone to saying it was due to residents’ “lack of personal responsibility.” The same poll found that 63 percent of Baltimore voters supported Mosby’s handling of the case, compared to 38 percent of voters statewide.

The presiding judge, Judge Barry G. Williams, a black man who previously prosecuted police misconduct for the federal Justice Department, said he would reconsider moving the trial out of town only after the court makes a serious effort to find a fair crop of jurors within the city. Williams made clear that he thinks it’s important for people to be tried by “their peers.” And trying the officers within the city, many have noted, should help lend the court proceedings greater legitimacy. “One way to ensure that a community accepts a jury’s verdict is for the jury to reflect the entire community’s diversity,” University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert told the Sun.

Residents and civil rights leaders will closely monitor the proceedings, and the local NAACP chapter plans to have a court watcher in attendance for the full duration of the trial. A great deal is riding on the outcome of these trials, and for better or for worse, everybody in Baltimore knows it.

 

The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 7th 2015.
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Rachel M. cohen

SEIU 1199 

Rachel M. Cohen

       

On August 6, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, dozens of Baltimore ex-felons rallied and marched alongside community members to protest their disenfranchisement. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill which would have granted ex-felons the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than making them wait until after their probation and parole sentences have been completed (some sentences can last for decades). Holding up signs that read, “We Want Taxation with Representation!” and “End the New Jim Crow!” protestors made clear that they understand the racial implications of the status quo. Had Hogan signed the bill into law, 40,000 more Maryland residents—a majority of them black Baltimoreans—would have been able to cast a ballot in the next election. “Override! Override! The veto! The veto!” protestors shouted together as they marched down the street.

The crowd, well over 100 people, eventually gathered around a statue of Thurgood Marshall, not far from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “We picked that spot because he’s one of the greatest symbols of justice and fairness,” explained Perry Hopkins, an ex-felon who now works as an organizer with Communities United, the social justice group that planned Thursday’s rally. Fifty-four-year-old Hopkins has never voted.

While Baltimore has made national headlines this year for its police brutality scandals and its spiking murder count, the gathered crowd recognized that these issues cannot be separated from the societal exclusion African-Americans experience every day.

One woman who came to the rally was Robinette Barmer, who has had two children and one grandchild locked up in jail. Barmer has been fighting for ex-felon voting rights all year, and traveled to Annapolis last spring to push for the bill’s passage. “I try to tell ex-cons that their voices do still matter,” she said.

Greg Carpenter, a 62-year-old black man who served 20 years in prison for an armed robbery, also has a 20-year parole sentence. Although Carpenter has been out of jail for 12 years now, he worries he won’t ever get to vote again in his lifetime.

Governor Hogan said that requiring ex-felons to finish their parole and probation sentences before voting “achieves the proper balance” between repaying one’s obligations to society and restoring citizens’ rights. Ex-felons point out that they are both working and paying taxes within their communities, and thus should also have the right to vote.

Social science research suggests that removing voting restrictions would provide positive benefits to both ex-offenders and society at large. The American Probation and Parole Association also says there is no credible evidence to suggest that disenfranchising people who have returned home from prison serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, there are roughly 5.85 million disenfranchised American citizens with felony convictions, and 2.2 million of them are black. That’s one out of every 13 African-Americans.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to end discriminatory voting barriers but the courts have disagreed on whether the VRA should apply to felon disenfranchisement laws. Maryland activists aren’t waiting around for the courts, though. At Thursday’s rally, organizers prepped the crowd for next year’s legislative season where they hope to push for an override. “We need you to show up and come out with us to Annapolis,” said Nicole Hanson, an ex-offender who works with Out4Justice, a group that politically mobilizes ex-offenders. “There’s only 90 days of [the legislative] session, so we’ll need you to make some sacrifices.”

Eighteen states considered loosening ex-felon voting restrictions this year, up from 13 states in 2014. But passing legislation, as Maryland activists witnessed first hand, is difficult. Only one state—Wyoming—ended up successfully loosening its restrictions.

Still, there has been demonstrable progress. The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly 800,000 citizens have regained the right to vote through voting reforms enacted between 1997 and 2010. Last month, President Obama even said that, “If folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”

“This is a very peaceful rally, but this issue is personal,” Hopkins said in an interview. “We’re going to flip power, and we’re going to empower. We’re going to show the governor who’s the boss. We’re the boss! We’re the people.”

Rachel M. Cohen

Perry Hopkins at the podium