Speaking to lawmakers, Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said he ran for office vowing to prosecute people who illegally carry handguns — a campaign promise that he’d like to keep.
Bates was recently in Annapolis to push his proposal to increase the maximum sentence for those 21 and older for wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun without a permit in Maryland from three years in prison to five years. Five years is currently the highest penalty for people 18 to 20 years old.
Baltimore experienced more than 2,600 homicides from 2015-2022, he said, and people used guns in a majority of those killings. Bates said the change would “hopefully prevent many homicides.”
“The question shouldn’t be, ‘Why are we doing this now?’” Bates said. “Instead, we should ask others, ‘Can we afford not to do this now?’”
In his first several weeks in office, Bates, a Democrat, has lobbied lawmakers in the Maryland General Assembly to pass his bill, arguing that increasing the maximum punishment would ensure fairness under the law and serve as a deterrent. But opponents have expressed skepticism, noting that research has shown that the likelihood of getting caught is more effective in preventing crime and that there are already laws on that books that allow for lengthy sentences.
When he used to be a defense attorney, Bates said clients would quickly accept a plea agreement for three years in prison. That’s because they only have to serve part of their sentence — 25% in some cases due to a recent change in state law — to become eligible for parole.
People who are serving short sentences remain in jail in Baltimore, where family members can easily visit them and “everything’s still a joke,” Bates said. He said he wants people to get a taste of prison, where they would be incarcerated farther away in places such as Cumberland, Hagerstown and Jessup.
But at the same time, Bates said he does not want to contribute to mass incarceration. If people do well after they’re released, he said, prosecutors are willing to go back to court and offer probation before judgment, which would allow them to expunge their records.
He has cited a 2022 report from the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a right-leaning organization in Rockville focused on public policy research and education, that argues that if the criminal justice had imposed stronger sentences against those who were later charged or convicted in a homicide in Baltimore, dozens of people would have lived.
Despite what some critics have suggested, Bates said the bill would not change the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony or require judges to hand down a mandatory minimum sentence.
In a statement, James Bentley, a spokesperson for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, said Bates has decades of experience as a defense attorney representing clients charged with gun crimes.
If people might have to serve more time, Bentley said, that would “reset the mental calculation of gun offenders on what they’re willing to risk.”
“This bill puts potential illegal gun carriers in an uncomfortable position. It lets them know that the consequences of illegally carrying a firearm will be appropriately punitive, and they will incur more than just a few months,” Bentley said. “The State’s Attorney knows firsthand that certainty of consequences means nothing without real consequences.”
Del. Frank Conaway Jr., a Democrat who represents Baltimore, is the lead sponsor of the bill. Seven other members of the Baltimore City Delegation are co-sponsoring the measure, and the House Judiciary Committee is set to hold a hearing on the legislation on Feb. 15.
Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, and former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, have both come out in favor of the proposal.
Though he said he was not trying to tell state lawmakers what to do, U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat from Baltimore, stated that he wholeheartedly backs the bill.
Mfume said his constituents are worried about the level of violence and the rate at which people commit new crimes. That’s especially the case for senior citizens and others who do not have mobility, he said, and are afraid to leave their homes, attend church and go to the supermarket.
“We can’t tolerate that in Baltimore,” Mfume said. “We just can’t do it.”
Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson Jr., president of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, said the organization supports the bill and believes that the state should take any and all measures to reduce gun violence.
“In essence, this bill is part of a solution,” he said. “But it’s not the whole solution.”
Defense attorneys, though, expressed opposition to increasing the maximum sentence and questioned whether that change would have any effect.
“It’s kind of a public relations move for the state’s attorney,” said Warren Brown, a defense attorney in Baltimore. “This is an effort to be tough on guns in Baltimore. But the reality of it is, the judges aren’t sentencing under the maximum allowable by law anyway for handguns.”
People do not know the maximum sentences for crimes, said Latoya Francis-Williams, a civil rights attorney in Randallstown, who added that “you couldn’t possibly sell harsher penalties is a deterrent.”
Martin Cohen, a defense attorney in Towson, noted that prosecutors already have ways to seek lengthy sentences under existing state law.
For instance, Cohen said, people with felony convictions can face charges of illegal possession of a regulated firearm.
He noted that people who are only facing charges of wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun without a permit simply have not completed the process to obtain a license. Cohen brought up a hypothetical example of a business owner from Virginia with a concealed carry permit who gets arrested in Maryland because he or she is unaware that the state does not accept his or her license.
“We already have the punishments in place for the people who he really wants to punish,” Cohen said. “It makes no sense at all.”
In 2016, the National Institute of Justice, the research, development and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, released a fact sheet called “Five Things About Deterrence” that summarizes a large amount of research.
The certainty of being caught is a “vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment,” the document states, and laws that look to deter crime through increasing sentences are ineffective because people do not know about the potential penalties for specific charges.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy in 2020 released a report that found that people who do not have felony convictions or other prohibiting conditions and are charged with illegal firearms possession often receive little or no time in Baltimore.
Between May 2015 and May 2019, judges handed down a sentence of probation in 128 out of 1,023 cases, or 12.5%, in which people were charged with wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun without a permit in Baltimore, according to the report.
The average period of incarceration — after factoring in the amount of suspended time — was 7.1 months in these cases. But people with felony convictions or who are taking part in drug trafficking tend to be sentenced to at least five years in prison, the study found.
The report reiterated that improving the certainty that people will face consequences for committing gun crimes is more important and cost-effective than increasing sentences.
Bates stated that he’s familiar with the report, but added that the study did not factor in the recent change to state law about parole.
Given the complexity of gun violence, it is “completely misguided” to focus on sentences and incarceration, said Heather Warnken, executive director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
Warnken said there is a lot of evidence that more health-oriented and holistic strategies reduce shootings and homicides. She said there is a growing body of research that connects redlining and divestment to the communities that most experience gun violence.
Bates, she said, has conflated and mischaracterized research, including the difference between certainty and severity of consequences.
At the same time, Warnken said, she has not doubt that people in the community have told Bates they want the criminal justice system to seriously deal with gun violence. That’s because she said she’s heard the same pleas.
“I hear those calls, not as calls for ratcheting up penalties, or calls for the incarceration that Ivan Bates is promising on delivering,” Warnken said. “I hear those as calls for safety, stability in their community.”
“Just because we’ve offered people police and prisons and prosecutors for so long,” she added, “doesn’t mean that’s actually what works.”