The Maryland General Assembly is considering legislation endorsed by Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates this session that would increase the maximum prison term for illegal gun possession from three years to five years.
Supporters of these increased penalties have been touting them in public safety forums and through the media as necessary to deter crime, garnering support from numerous elected officials.
To be clear, addressing the immeasurable pain caused by gun violence in our communities must be an utmost priority. Residents throughout the state, especially in communities bearing the brunt of this violence, want and need action from lawmakers. It is because we care so deeply about this crisis and the victims it impacts, not out of disregard for them, that we are alarmed by this misguided bill.
The evidence is simply not there to support this bill. In fact, a great deal of evidence suggests it will be harmful to public safety.
Studies demonstrate that longer prison sentences do not deter crime. When any minimal deterrent effect is detected, it is substantially outweighed by the cost to the community. Unnecessary incarceration increases the risk of that individual being involved in future crime, because most people return to their communities more vulnerable than they were before.
The reality is that most people are not aware of or weighing criminal penalties when making the decision about whether to possess a gun, especially when motivated by their own survival.
This bill also relies on a troubling conflation of certainty of consequences versus severity of consequences. The research is clear that a far more important and cost-effective way to deter crime is through certainty of consequences, not severity. The consequences for illegal gun possession in Baltimore are currently uncertain, due to many systemic deficiencies. It is a waste of resources to prioritize making consequences for illegal gun possession more severe than the ones we already have.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the talking points from supporters of this bill has been the downplaying of the enormous impact of incarceration on individuals, their families and communities. Proponents have claimed that shorter stints in local jails, where they claim that visits from family and friends are more convenient, causes those incarcerated to take the sentences less seriously than if they were imprisoned farther away from home at a state prison.
This is out of touch with both the literature on deterrence and the well-documented toll that incarceration takes on a person and their community.
Research demonstrates that excessive incarceration does not increase public safety, but instead weakens our communities, particularly those most affected by gun violence. Spending even one night locked up — away from one’s family, peers, employment or school, has cascading negative consequences for a person’s ability to survive and thrive, due to resulting job loss, loss of access to stable housing, health care disruption, loss of voting rights, loss of occupational licensing, loss or denial of public benefits and more.
This approach will also have a profound impact on family members. A large body of literature on children with incarcerated parents demonstrates the trauma and severe disruption parental incarceration can cause to a child’s life. Furthermore, disconnection from family members is well-documented as a direct contributor to risk of recidivism upon release. Incarceration also destabilizes communities, draining them of valuable sources of social capital.
The trauma of prison itself is also well documented, and recent reporting on the conditions of confinement in Maryland is a striking reminder. In 2022, the ACLU published a letter following a visit to the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, stating people “are held in the harshest and most depraved conditions we have ever encountered in any prison or jail in the United States.”
Maryland already holds the shameful distinction of first in the nation in racial disparities through its over-incarceration of Black males. The claim that anyone who is prosecuted considers jail a “joke,” as Bates has suggested, relies on a racist trope that discounts the trauma of incarceration. Such an assertion would never be made if our jails were filled with wealthy white residents.
We are not advocating for our lawmakers to do nothing. We are urging them to pursue policies that will actually make our communities safe, including prioritizing public health approaches to gun violence and investing in strategies to improve relationships between communities and the police. This is necessary for many reasons, including improving the abysmally low clearance rates for nonfatal shootings and homicides.
We must have the courage to give these evidence-based solutions a chance to work, rather than regressing to politically expedient yet utterly failed strategies of the past.
We welcome the opportunity to engage with Mr. Bates on alternate policy solutions, which we discussed at length in written testimony signed by a broad coalition of more than 25 community groups, public safety advocates, academics, civil rights organizations and others opposed to this bill.
Much like the disastrous war on drugs, we will not incarcerate our way out of the epidemic of gun violence. Yet we continue to try, rather than building an infrastructure of opportunity and care.
When we know better, we’re supposed to do better.
Heather Warnken is executive director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law and lead author of the National Public Safety Partnership report on the response to Black and brown victims of gun violence in Baltimore.
Dr. Joseph Richardson is the Joel and Kim Feller professor of African-American Studies and anthropology at the University of Maryland College Park and producer of “Life After the Gunshot.”