Pubdate: Sun, 03 Apr 2016
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2016 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Dan Rodricks


The great awakening to the social problems wrought by the long war on 
drugs and America's epoch of mass incarceration now informs almost 
every discussion of the state of the union and its future. It's kind 
of shocking.

In a time of hyper-partisanship, I hear Americans from a range of 
ideologies acknowledge a history of institutional prejudices and 
misguided policies: Treating drug addiction as a crime and not a 
condition, ignoring the toxic side effects of zero-tolerance policing 
in Baltimore and other cities, curtailing efforts to rehabilitate 
inmates (taking corrections out of corrections), treating juvenile 
offenders as adults.

But it still leaves us with lots of guns. It still leaves us with a 
father and son crossing a street in East Baltimore with what police 
say was enough firepower to massacre a small crowd.

I'm glad that we are finally having a national discussion about the 
failed law enforcement and criminal justice policies of the past.

But on the ground, we still have a serious guys-with-guns problem 
and, in Baltimore, 150 people shot this year by the first day of 
April. Homicides are up 11 percent over last year, and last year was 
horrible. Even with the police effort - nearly 1,200 arrests for 
illegal gun possession in 2015, and at least 250 more this year - our 
city still crackles with gunfire.

In the aftermath of the killing by Baltimore police officers of the 
father and his teenage son as they stepped into East Lanvale Street 
on Thursday, consider: Both had been arrested for firearms offenses, 
the father for a second time, in the last year. And the father, in 
particular, benefited from a justice system that still treats gun 
crimes as secondary.

The father, 43-year-old Matthew V. Wood Jr. of Exeter Hall Avenue, 
had been arrested in October after police with a warrant searched his 
home and found a 9mm handgun. It was his second gun conviction. Wood, 
a convicted felon, pleaded guilty. He should have received a 
mandatory sentence of five years in prison without parole.

Instead, Circuit Judge Alfred Nance sentenced Wood to time served, 
about three months. Nance apparently deferred to prosecutors, who had 
agreed to "step off" the mandatory sentence. And isn't that just 
great? So Wood walked out of court. Six months later, police say, he 
walked out on Lanvale Street with a semiautomatic rifle.

His 18-year-old son, Kimani Johnson, was with him. According to 
police, Johnson had a loaded handgun. Court records show that Johnson 
was out on bail, awaiting trial on - guess what? - a handgun charge.

Two Baltimore police officers stopped Wood and his son before they 
could harm or kill anyone, but what were they doing in the street 
with guns to begin with?

Johnson was free on $100,000 bail. Short of a judge setting a higher 
bail and putting it beyond his financial reach, there probably wasn't 
much that could have been done.

But Wood got off easy. He appears to have benefited from the state's 
willingness to toss aside a gun charge and a judge's deference.

Imagine if Wood had been able to fire that rifle the other day. What 
would Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Judge Nance have 
said about the decision to let Wood walk with time served?

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has been calling for 
stiffer penalties for illegal gun possession. He does so in the midst 
of the great national awakening about, among other things, the 
collateral damage from mandatory minimum sentencing. Davis ran into 
resistance in Annapolis in his effort to increase the mandatory 
minimums for first and second convictions of illegal gun possession. 
He wanted a minimum of one year for the first offense, five for the second.

The Baltimore delegation to the General Assembly supported bills that 
would achieve those minimums, but they have gone nowhere. Rural 
conservatives oppose the change because they say it might ensnare 
law-abiding gun owners - a ridiculous claim. Neoprogressives oppose 
mandatory minimums generally, which is a popular position to take 
now, in the midst of the great awakening.

There is no doubt that mandatory minimums have harmed a lot of 
people, but mostly those who were arrested for drug possession and 
low-level drug dealing. Gun crimes are different. There should be a 
special place in prison for guys who continually possess or carry illegal guns.

Daniel Webster, a Hopkins researcher and one of the nation's leading 
experts on gun violence, notes the recent shift in police focus from 
arresting people who use and sell drugs to arresting people who are 
armed and dangerous and cause most of the violence.

"That practice has a pretty good track record and has wide support 
from community residents, so long as the policing is done fairly and 
legally," Webster says. "But it's demoralizing when police make 
arrests that are successfully prosecuted, and perpetrators get 
probation and are back on the streets, a risk to police and residents alike."
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