By Barry Rascovar
Gov. Larry Hogan can’t make up his mind.
Last year he was a gung-ho advocate of “soft-on-criminals” reforms aimed at cutting Maryland’s prison population by 1,000 and putting more resources into helping low-level offenders avoid a life of crime.
This time, though, Hogan is sporting his “tough on criminals” campaign button, calling for “truth-in-sentencing” as part of a crime-fighting package he’ll introduce in the next legislative session.
So, is Hogan soft or tough on crime?
As the 2018 election campaign draws closer, Mr. Tough Guy wins the day.
It’s good publicity to be seen as eager to crack down hard on thugs and violent offenders making Baltimore City one of America’s crime capitals.
So what if Hogan’s truth-in-sentencing idea negates all the savings of his Justice Reinvestment Act that commences in October?
So what if his plan creates extreme hazardous conditions for correctional guards and for inmates in Maryland’s prisons?
So what if it ties the hands of judges and virtually eliminates the need for a parole board and a probation division?
And so what if Hogan’s idea will do virtually nothing to stem Baltimore’s historic criminal rampage?
It’s all about the atmospherics, the sense that the governor is mad as hell and won’t take it anymore, that he’s fed up with molly-coddling prisoners, that he’s doing something.
Hogan tried to set up city judges as the bad guys. He demanded they attend a criminal justice meeting on Aug. 29 where he’d sternly tell them to hand out lengthy sentences.
After the state’s chief judge informed him no member of the judiciary would attend because it would impinge greatly on judicial independence and the constitution’s separation of powers, Hogan played the role of offended party.
He used their absence to pound on judges as one reason Baltimore’s crime situation is “out of control.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh piled on, too, expressing disappointment in the judges’ absence. “We have repeat offenders continuing to walk the streets,” she said because judges are handing out too many suspended sentences.
If only it were that simple.
Even State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby couldn’t resist taking a shot, indicating that long, long prison terms for violent, repeat offenders would make Baltimore safer. (So would a better record of successful prosecutions by the state’s attorney’s office – a point Mosby artfully ignored.)
View from the Judiciary
Mary Ellen Barbera, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, later tried to talk common sense in a commentary article but was drowned out by the emotional political rhetoric.
She noted those suspended sentences primarily relate to cases in which the defendant has been convicted of multiple crimes.
This results in an extended prison term on the most serious crimes and a conditional suspension of extra time in prison on lesser offenses.
That means inmates leaving prison still remain under state watch through the parole system for years to come. They’re also required to meet other terms set by judges, such as mandatory drug testing, employment, weekly check-ins, etc.
Hogan is getting pushback from some within his administration on the merits of turning Maryland toward the rigid, “life-without-parole” model.
It’s a huge drain on the prison system’s budget and the prison staff. It increases the chance of recidivism once these inmates are released. And it does very little to stem the rising tide of violence.
Hogan got it right the first time with the Justice Reinvestment Act.
Crime in lower-income communities is a multi-faceted, complex problem. Dealing with it by locking up felonious offenders for lengthy periods won’t change the underlying causes of disrespect for the law.
But it does play well with voters, and 2018 is, indeed, an election year for Maryland’s governor and the city’s state’s attorney.