House and Senate Republicans called for a renewed effort to combat crime in advance of the 2024 General Assembly session.
Calling crime a growing crisis, Republican leaders said it is incumbent that lawmakers act in the coming session. They called on Democrats to join with them to pass measures that stiffen penalties for some crimes or in some cases roll back portions of recently enacted laws.
“There’s no reason that we can’t get a lot of this done and we can’t get it done now,” said House Minority Leader Del. Jason Buckel (R-Allegany). “Nobody ever comes out on the record and says, ‘Oh yeah, I’m for being softer on violent criminals. Oh yeah, I’m for being softer on gun crime.’ Nobody ever says that. We just do it in silence. We just do it behind closed doors. We let things die. We don’t advance policies.”
None of the bills previewed by Republicans can pass without significant help from Democrats, who hold super majorities in both the House and Senate. Republicans hold less than one-third of the 188 General Assembly seats.
“This crisis is not new,” said Senate Minority Leader Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore). “And members of our caucus have been introducing common sense legislation for years that targets repeat violent offenders and illegal guns in our community. But these proposals have fallen on deaf Democrat years. We will not give up. It is our intention to hold our Democrat colleagues accountable and the citizens of Maryland to the citizens of Maryland the violence and crime crisis must end.”
A spokesperson for Senate President Bill Ferguson declined to to comment on the Republican package but said crime reduction will be a top priority for the 2024 session. Democrats in the Senate expect to announce some legislative priorities later in the year.
Similarly, Gov. Wes Moore (D) could begin to roll out his own priorities in the coming weeks. The governor has called for an increased effort to combat violence in recent months including following mass shootings in July in Brooklyn Park and at Morgan State University in October.
“I don’t think we’ve ever passed a bill that gets tougher on crime objectives,” said Buckel. “In the 10 years I’ve been here, every bill we passed gets softer on crime, more diminution credits, shorter sentences, it’s easier to get out on bail, tougher to penalize juvenile offenders, tougher to penalize repeat offenders. Every year, we look at the statistics of where we’re at. You can’t have a thriving state like that. You can’t have a thriving state economically, or an education system. None of that thrives if crime runs rampant.”
The proposed legislative package includes five bills.
Two of the bills are versions of legislation that failed in previous sessions, including one that would increase fines and jail time for criminals who use firearms in the commission of violent crimes.
The bill passed the Senate in 2020 and 2021 but has never gotten out of the House.
Republicans are again calling for the legislature to make the theft of a firearm a felony rather than a misdemeanor. The bill has been introduced in the General Assembly since 2018.
Another bill would end good behavior credits for anyone convicted of first- or second-degree murder and cap credits reducing sentences for other crimes of violence to 10%. It would also eliminate bail for anyone charged with a crime of violence who was out on bail already and awaiting trial for other violent crime charges.
Buckel said the recent murder of Pava LaPere in Baltimore is proof that such changes are needed. Jason Billingsley, who is accused of murdering LaPere, has a history of criminal convictions for violent offenses on his record and at the time of LaPere’s death was wanted for rape, attempted murder and arson in a crime that occurred three days earlier.
Buckel said Billingsley was able to gain his release due to partial suspensions and good behavior credits.
“Frankly, our system is complicit in her killing,” said Buckel
House and Senate Republicans also want to repeal portions of two recently enacted laws concerning juvenile offenders and another involving the odor of marijuana.
Republicans said the recently enacted Juvenile Justice Restoration Act “makes it nearly impossible” to properly deal with some young defendants.
“The juvenile justice Restoration Act seeks to right the recent wrongs of new juvenile justice laws that have made it nearly impossible to ensure that there are appropriate consequences for young offenders,” said House Minority Whip Del. Jesse T. Pippy (R-Frederick).
The House and Senate caucuses said they will back legislation that would roll back a requirement that an attorney be present for a minor to be questioned. In its place, Republicans want to allow parents to consent to such questioning.
Other changes would require any juvenile younger than 13 who uses a gun in the commission of a crime to be referred to the juvenile court system.
Children and teens arrested for a third non-violent crime would also be sent to the juvenile court system rather than other diversion programs.
The House Judiciary Committee held a three-hour hearing last week on the efficacy of reforms to the juvenile justice system.
The hearing followed the well-publicized beating and robbery of a Baltimore woman in Butchers Hill. The juveniles, ages 12 and 14, also attempted to steal her car. They were released hours after being arrested.
Democratic city officials including Ferguson, House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger, and Dels. Robbyn Lewis and Mark Edelson sent a letter to city police and the Department of Juvenile Services citing “a disturbing trend involving youth violence. Too often young people who are credibly accused of committing extremely violent crimes have been arrested and then released within hours.”
Republicans will also back an effort to allow police to search a vehicle based on the odor of cannabis.
The bill seeks to roll back a provision in a law passed and that prohibits such a search based solely on the odor of the drug, which can now be legally purchased in the state.
“By rushing to pass this legislation the General Assembly put our citizens at risk,” said Pippy. “It is more than the safety of the motoring public that is at stake now that vehicles cannot be stopped and searched due to the smell of cannabis. This prohibition also makes it more difficult to get illegal guns off the streets.”
Some law enforcement agencies said the inability to search a car based on the odor of cannabis has hurt efforts to seize illegal guns.
Republicans attempted to thwart the passage of cannabis legislation last session because of the provision. In the House, the fight resulted in last ditch effort to challenge House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) and in many Republicans walking off the floor in the final minutes of the 2023 session.