Monday, May 16, 2011
A Quiet Victory Against Guns
The governor signed into law a major new weapon in the arsenal against gun crime last week, but it barely caused a ripple in the media.
Perhaps because it couldn't be summarized in a couple of words, or exploit conflict, like "gay marriage." Perhaps because it wasn't some elected official's pet project intended to raise his or her political profile. But a gun bill that failed last year got through the notoriously tough House Judiciary committee chaired by defense attorney Joe Vallario and passed into law this year.
The first thing it does is fix a law that required a mandatory five year prison term for certain felons in possession of a handgun. What's wrong with a law like that? Mainly, that it gave prosecutors little leverage. Since the maximum and the minimum penalty were the same--five years--defendants had little reason to plead guilty and every reason to take a time-consuming jury trial. Guilty pleas move the criminal justice system along, much as some may not like it.
But leverage also helps police and prosecutors gain intelligence about other crimes and criminals by offering plea bargains. The TV show Law & Order, which otherwise drives me crazy in its depiction of the court process, frequently illustrates the power of leverage. The new law provides a sentencing range of five to fifteen years to provide that leverage.
Next, the law closes a glaring hole in the prohibitions against felons possessing guns and those who use guns in committing violent crimes: in both cases, the law excepted shotguns and rifles. In other words, a person could receive an additional penalty for using a handgun in an armed robbery, but not for using a rifle. A felon could be convicted of possessing a handgun, but not a pistol grip shotgun. Now, all those weapons are prohibited.
So it turned out to be three bills in one, correcting problems that police and prosecutors have wanted to change for a long time. Some had already been working on pieces of the problem, like Senator Larry Haines. Haines had tried to punish the use of rifles and shotguns in violent crime for years. When he retired before this session, the governor's office took up the cause.
Vallario contributed mightily by merging several bills into one and getting it through his committee last year before time ran out to pass it. Curt Anderson and the Baltimore city delegation introduced the merged bill this year, which was supported by the mayor and other elected officials. The new vice chairman of the House judiciary committee, Kathleen Dumais of Montgomery County, fought to keep it from being watered down. (Thank you, Speaker Michael Busch, for making her vice chair.)
But the initiative for the new penalty range for felons who possess guns, and the person who worked the hardest to keep the legislation intact and on track, wasn't any elected politician but a lawyer working for the Baltimore Police Department, Jim Green.
Green perceived the importance of the legislation, worked on drafting it, organized witnesses for the legislative hearings, worked with committee members, and endured with professionalism nonsense such as occurred last year, when former Baltimore state's attorney Pat Jessamy walked out on a committee hearing on the bill because she didn't think she was given the credit she deserved.
He remained patient when the bill failed, brought it back this year, worked closely with Vallario, compromised when necessary, and won a big victory for law enforcement.
And he will be horrified to read this blog. Jim Green is about as ego-less as anybody I have ever met, despite his credentials. He handled shooting and gun cases as an assistant state's attorney and as a specially designated federal prosecutor for years. He came over to the city police department at about the time that his former boss, Jessamy, was ratcheting up warfare against the police as a means to get at her enemy O'Malley. Despite continual provocation, Green attempted to work with Jessamy's office and within the police department to promote reforms that would benefit the criminal justice system.
Green can spin out creative ideas for change at such a dizzying rate that a listener can get fatigued. But to those who understand what he is talking about, those who have worked a long time within the system, Green provides a refreshing, optimistic, visionary voice for progress.
Many politicians and would-be reformers try to jump from A to Z by skipping B-Y. O'Malley as mayor was a reformer like that, and a failed one. Green gets to Z the right way, through respect for all the players, his understanding of the complexity of issues, his willingness to listen to other ideas, his long experience, and his utter professionalism. He is one of the gems in the criminal justice system that works below the radar, just a public servant doing his job very, very well.
So though he wouldn't want me to say it out loud, I say thanks, Jim Green.