Treat minimum sentences like an emergency public health measure

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By Nate Loewentheil

Last week I was at a vigil for a young man named MJ in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. A few days earlier, he had been shot 15 times after leaving a pool party.

His girlfriend organized the vigil. For the first hour, she was calm and collected. Then her two-year old son – MJ’s son – started crying, and her grief burst forth. Between tears and cries and shouts of anger, she blamed the streets that had taken her son’s father and begged the crowd to put the guns down.

I was asked to say a few words but was speechless; I have never lost a family member to gun violence and could do no more than offer my prayers and a long hug. At the end of the service, 150 people released balloons with MJ’s name into the darkening summer sky.

A one-year sentence

To try to control the rapid growth in gun violence and get guns of the street, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis are pushing a new city ordinance that would impose a one-year minimum sentence for carrying an illegal firearm in Baltimore. I applaud this effort.

The proposal is similar to legislation pushed by then-state Sen. Pugh in the Maryland legislature, which was unfortunately rejected.

In Baltimore, the proposed law has been met with fierce resistance from community members, activists and leaders – including Baltimore City Council members Brandon Scott and Shannon Sneed – who are wary of mandatory minimums.

The debate is shadowed by the city’s history of zero tolerance policing and concerns about the reliability, trustworthiness and fairness of the police force. Those concerns make sense.

Harm done by mandatory sentences

Long mandatory minimum sentences can have harmful consequences. Typically, these minimums have imposed 15, 20 or 25 year sentences, often for a wide range of drug and gun crimes. They have had a disparate impact on minority communities and had intergenerational consequences for too many families.

Once imposed, these laws have proven very resistant to reform. Federal mandatory minimums have been particularly damaging.

Mayor Pugh’s proposal is different. It is a new city ordinance that can be easily amended. It creates a relatively short minimum sentence. And it is focused on a very narrow and immediate crisis: people are carrying too many guns around town, and the more guns, the more violence.

MJ is one of 192 people murdered this year. That’s 192 funerals, hundreds of aggrieved parents and loved ones, scores of children who will grow up without a father or mother.

Today, too many gun offenders are let off without consequences. As Police Commissioner Davis has pointed out, some are right back on the streets committing crimes, including specific examples of individuals who were released with suspended sentences after facing gun possession charges and went on to commit assaults and murder.

No zero tolerance policing

I believe firmly that Baltimore cannot afford a return to zero tolerance policing. The Police Department needs reform, beginning with a thorough implementation of the Department of Justice consent decree.

But we need to find ways to break the cycle of violence right now. To carry a gun today is to test fate – like lighting a bonfire in a forest during a long, dry summer.

Here’s a compromise that may address the concerns of opponents while still accomplishing the Mayor’s laudable goals:

Treat the situation like a public health emergency. Pass a law imposing a one-year minimum sentence for carrying an illegal gun, but create a “sunset” provision so that the rule automatically comes up for review after two years.

A sunset provision communicates that the goal here is not to put more people in jail in the long-term. It’s to tackle an immediate public health and safety crisis, like imposing quarantines during an epidemic. A temporary rule also creates an opportunity for an empirical evaluation. If the rule doesn’t work, it comes off the books. If the rule does work, it could be a good model for other cities going through similar spikes in violence.

Such a rule is not a replacement for public investment in jobs, in education, in creating opportunities for young people. It doesn’t substitute for programs like Safe Streets – or, for that matter, for police training.

But it does give our city another tool to fight against the possession of illegal guns in our city. No one should be shot dead in our streets.

Nate Loewentheil lives in southeast Baltimore. Most recently, he led President Obama’s White House Taskforce for Baltimore City. 

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