Op-Alt: Hearing on mandatory minimum bill was Shutting Down Public Discourse 101

Last week's Baltimore City Council Judicial and Legislative Investigations Committee "public" hearing on the recent controversial illegal handgun possession bill (with a mandatory minimum sentence attached) came off as a disorganized, dysfunctional, and undemocratic mess—somewhat by design. 

I was there to voice my opposition against the bill as a citizen effected by gun violence and a city public defender of over 13 years. Instead, I mainly sat agape watching the ineptitude of our local elected officials unfold over such a pressing issue. 

Right now, Baltimore is crippled by shootings and gun violence and no one has come up with a plan to stop it. However, innovative approaches, many of which will help but won't be panaceas, have been floated around town by grassroots organizations and black-led movements, yet haven't been given their due. I'm referring to direct intervention programs, and aid and support in certain neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, part of our City Council seems fixated on pointing fingers at the criminal justice system as a solution via this shortsighted handgun bill that would require a one-year mandatory jail sentence upon a conviction through trial or plea of illegal handgun possession (unlicensed or unsanctioned). Proponents of the bill think courts have gone soft and can't be trusted. My belief is this law won't do what supporters think, and it could have some really negative consequences. People on both sides of the debate are passionate about their positions, but not everyone seems to be well informed, including members of City Council. The hearing only made it worse.

The Judicial and Legislative Investigations Committee is chaired by Councilman Eric Costello, who is a proponent of the bill. Besides eliminating any hope for a dialogue on the issue from the outset of the hearing, Costello steered the agenda toward his side. Immediately, the committee's presentation seemed strange as the audience was "treated" to a statement on the bill from each councilperson in an opening bit of grandstanding. The non-committee members didn't even get to vote at this stage. This portion seemed a bit out of place since the public hadn't even commented yet. Horse, then cart.

After the councilmembers graced us with their thoughts, some of which were fact-based, we got to hear from a trio of state-level elected officials from Baltimore—all in favor of the legislation. Delegates Cheryl Glenn and Curt Anderson and Senator Joan Carter Conway spoke as if they were out of options and mandatory jail time was the only way to go. They completely ignored the fact that mandatories don't work, that mandatories will likely net the wrong type of offender, and the notion that judges need discretion in courtroom. These not-so-well versed Annapolis lawmakers promptly exited after their out-of-turn remarks, and in doing so, dissed their own constituents by showing us how "valuable" their time was. 

After being lectured to for several hours by lawmakers, the public was subjected to a question and answer session from a few select agencies and organizations that supported Costello's agenda. Time limits were magically lifted during this segment. First, the city legal department dodged any controversy and rubber stamped the bill, glossing over potential unconstitutional vagaries in the language of it. Legal also seemed to be unconcerned with the disproportional implementation of mandatory sentences among different races. Costello also invited the State's Attorney's Office to participate in this portion, but they did not show. The chairman still indicated that they supported the bill. 

Later, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis' presentation as a long-time backer of the bill was typical—he sidestepped any issues of his officers potentially using discriminatory practices in enforcing the new law and focused on extreme, violent examples. With its recent film star's revelations coming on the heels of the DOJ findings, the police department could not come to the debate with dirtier hands. Remarkable to me, though, was the absence of anyone remotely associated with a courtroom, namely a defense attorney or an individual who's been falsely arrested for a gun crime. My office was not allowed to take part in the panel format—only public commenting. Says a lot.

Midway through the panel portion, several council members introduced amendments to the bill on the fly to the dismay of Costello. The chairman suggested that any amendments were to have been put in writing the night before, but his colleagues did not care. First, a provision limiting the new offense from applying to first-time offenders was added. Then, a requirement that the illegal possession must occur during another type of crime was added. Finally, a suggestion of a "sunset" or two-year phase out provision was proposed, but shot down.

Costello's efforts were failing as his colleagues watered down the bill to resemble legislation already covered by other Maryland laws.  The bill later passed committee with the amendments, but it boggles the mind as to why. With such hesitations about applying this severe, unforgiving law to the wrong person or in the wrong circumstance, then why not just let courts function to consider those factors?  If you need a future check-in to see how a law is doing, then maybe you should reconsider its effectiveness at the outset.  Make no mistake, the resulting bill should still be opposed. It now serves no purpose other than requiring one more year of incarceration for a small subset of gun offenses. The year neither deters crime, nor serves to rehabilitate offenders. It just comes off as cold and cruel. Our legislators, in the most progressive jurisdiction in the state, should reject any mandatory sentences. This could become a trend if passed.

Three and a half hours into the public hearing, the committee heard from the public, but not without an uproar. Myself and other city residents arrived at the hearing by 9 a.m. for a 10 a.m. start. I went up to the hearing room at about 9:30 a.m. and signed up to comment behind about 10 people. Commenting didn't begin until after 1 p.m.  I had to leave for a meeting at one point and came back to find I still had not been called. I spoke at about 2:30 p.m., but got cut short, much to my dismay. Many folks were unable to stay or left before being called. As commenting began, Costello tried to insert a team of doctors in the front of the line to, again, further his agenda. The crowd was not having it. It was a slap in the face, just like the rest of the format. Just like the motives that drove the Baltimore Uprising. Citizens were being ignored, not in their neighborhoods, but in a physical institution of democracy, City Hall, face to face. Costello lost control when he ordered a vocal citizen removed from the hearing room causing further commotion. It took 20 minutes and a team of police to restore order. 

Two citizens were arrested in what seemed unnecessary displays of authority from police who already had it out for many of the protesters in attendance. Why arrest folks, when you can simply remove them if they truly are that disruptive? Extreme measures by the police, and a tone-deaf hearing with elected officials denying citizens the right to comment only furthers a distrust of government in Baltimore. It also doesn't instill much hope that shortsighted bills like the handgun proposal would ever be implemented fairly. For the next hearing, I'm packing a lunch.

Todd Oppenheim is an attorney in the Baltimore City Public Defender's Office. Twitter: @Opp4Justice. 

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