Public safety is a regular topic of conversation in Maryland, given the 5 consecutive years of 300+ murders in Baltimore City. There is broad based lip service to the notion that a wholistic approaches to dealing with violence in Baltimore is necessary. Given the emergence of empirical data and historical analysis of the policy implications of the so called “war on drugs,” there is very little space in mainstream political discourse for mass incarceration as a viable policy solution to violence in Baltimore. Public policy discourse has been one thing, but the actual policies of Maryland reflect a different reality. The mainstream of Maryland politics talks progressive, and in rare instances make policies that are small progressive concessions, but overall Maryland continues to legislate from the perspective of a Clintonian, tough on crime policy. In previously published pieces, LBS has made two important points that are relevant to the issue at hand.
The first is about the pivot to emphasize criminal justice reform policies that are centered on “non-violent criminals”. While this new emphasis may be well intentioned, it provides cover for corrupt police departments, whose personnel have internalized notions of Black people being inherently criminal and violent, to track thousands of Black people into prison who are not murders. Instead this approach would draw in to prisons folks who may feel that they have to use violence to survive the violence in their communities. Non-violent offenders become the ideal people to save from the criminal justice system, leaving those who may have gotten into a fight, or those who have a firearm for protection to be tracked into prison, leaving intact the network of people who are the drivers of violence in Baltimore. Any person who carries a gun for protection from people who are perpetrators of murder become lumped together, which results in there being Black people in prison who would be better served by themselves and the community by having alternatives to incarceration.
Recently, this has included increasing mandatory minimums for possession of illegal firearms. Legislators say this will help law enforcement detain and setence “repeat violent offenders”. This is simply untrue. In this March 2018 exchange, former MD State Senator Bobby Zirkin and Dayvon Love debate about this exact issue during a Senate Judiciary hearing:
Secondly, the issue of police corruption and incompetence are often sectioned off from conversations about public safety. As we have written in other pieces, it does not matter how many new laws are put on the books for violent crime, if the police are incapable of delivering a good case to a prosecutor, or worse, if police officers are engaged themselves in criminal activity, there is no pathway to getting violent crime under control. There is no way around this issue. But the Governor and establishment Democrats have continued to make policies addressing public safety as if you can get around the issue of police corruption and incompetence.
In a white supremacist society there are two things that govern public policy regarding crime and violence. One is that (poor and working class) Black people are disposable, and two that the police, as protectors of the established social order and therefor above reproach, are rarely ever political targets of Democratic or Republican political leaders. This is because white liberals, moderates and their Black appendages value order more than they value justice. There is strong underlying support for police as those who maintain the order that mainstream society valorizes, which means that harsh critiques of law enforcement to this audience strikes them as an attack on their own security (i.e. the thin blue line). This is why Governor Hogan and Democratic Party Leadership in Maryland do not address themselves to police incompetence and corruption as matters of public safety. Black and Brown people have historically and contemporaneously been victimized by police violating our human rights with no substantive consequences, except in very few cases. The order that white liberals, moderates and their Black appendages valorize is the very order that is a danger to Black people. Whether it is the use of excessive force, sexual violence, killing of Black and Brown people, or the silence on corruption and incompetence that allows for perpetrators of violence against Black people to remain on the street, the order that gives white people comfort is the order that harms Black people.
On May 7th, 2020 Governor Hogan announced that he was going to veto numerous criminal justice reform and progressive public safety legislation.
This legislation includes:
- Expunging criminal records from a unit of charges
- Removing possession of marijuana from case search
- Funding for community based anti-violence programs.
His rationale centered on public safety. In his letter to the presiding officers of the Maryland General Assembly, he says that he was disappointed that his “Violent Firearm Offenders Act” passed the Senate, but not the House and for that reason he is going to veto a series of bills, including those mentioned above.
LBS worked to stop the passage of the Governor’s bill because it uses the same kind of sentence enhancements that contribute to mass incarceration. Many Democrats will express outrage at Hogan’s veto, but I think it is important to make sure that blame is not just put at the Governor’s feet. Democrats are the reason that Hogan is the Governor. Many of them voted for Hogan, and many others just took a knee during the 2018 Gubernatorial election.
If you are a progressive Democrat, you also bare some responsibility if you have not challenged your moderate Democratic colleagues. Former Senate President Mike Miller, who is was the longest serving state senate president in the US, is chief among those Democrats who has pushed for the kinds of policies that has propelled mass incarceration, and who has refused to hold law enforcement accountable for its corruption and incompetence.
The attempts at overriding Hogan’s vetos in the beginning of the 2021 session will be a litmus test to see whether Democrats in Maryland have truly shifted to become progressive, or if they remain a body that is more committed to order than to justice.