[Baltimore Sun] Baltimore City councilman misses the mark in state’s attorney’s budget hearing | GUEST COMMENTARY

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Our Baltimore City Council’s Ways and Means Committee recently engaged in political grandstanding during a fiscal oversight hearing instead of listening when valuable information was presented by the State’s Attorney’s Office.

Rather than focusing on the historic charging and conviction data provided by State’s Attorney Ivan J. Bates and his team, Councilman Kristerfer Burnett used the budgetary bully pulpit to demonstrate his ire and ignorance of the citation docket. Had he bothered to pay attention, the councilman could have discovered how useful citations have proven for past administrations trying to hold offenders accountable for quality-of-life crimes.

Bates attempted to show the benefits of citations, a common prosecutorial tool. But Burnett, who did not seek re-election for his 8th District seat, had a different agenda. As Bates made his case for funding, Burnett zeroed in on citations for minor infractions and posed rhetorical questions. How can you represent Baltimore citizens if you don’t bother to understand an agency’s operations? Statistics offer meaningful insights, unless that’s not your agenda.

In taking his stance against the citation docket, Burnett missed the big picture: a historic criminal conviction rate that’s not been witnessed by a first-term state’s attorney in more than four decades. That success should have been applauded, along with the hard work it represents.

I’ve seen my share of prosecution data as a former prosecutor from the 1980s until 1991, and as a judge who served during three additional state’s attorney administrations. It’s clear to me that Bates and his colleagues have done an amazing job in the short time he’s been in office.

In the 17 months since Bates was sworn in, jury guilty verdicts surged 21%, reaching almost a 70% conviction rate. Homicide convictions increased by 38 cases in one year, which is almost unprecedented, given the complexities of putting such cases together. In 2023, the state’s attorney achieved 136 homicide convictions, compared to 98 in 2022.

Pardon me if I’m driven by the data, but that is proof — and should have been embraced by Burnett and his colleagues. Lost in the heated rhetoric was other unmistakable progress. One example: 90 gun cases turned over to federal authorities, resulting in a 26% increase in federal prosecutions, which typically lead to longer, more severe consequences. That means fewer violent offenders in our communities committing crimes with guns.

Our city should also celebrate the increase in convictions of felons carrying firearms, often in drug cases. Last year, the state’s attorney successfully prosecuted 164 such cases, compared to 98 in the prior year. The guns — and the criminals using them — are off the streets. That’s good news.

The overall statistical portrait is compelling: at least 390 violent offenders have been successfully prosecuted in 2023 alone (with their sentences adding up to 1,375 years behind bars.) I would argue that Bates’ track record contributed greatly to Baltimore finally seeing a dropping murder rate, with fewer than 300 homicides recorded last year for the first time in a decade.

We still have a long way to go. As much we would like to wish, hope or talk our way to better days, some of our young people are out of control. In the last year, prosecutors charged more than double the number of juveniles with auto theft or carjacking, while youth robbery cases exploded almost 500%. These are important facts, which our elected officials should heed. It’s important to finance appropriate solutions — not just pet programs or political agendas.

But we’re making progress. In a city infamous for “Stop Snitching,” Bates has focused on the safety of victims and witnesses, who are the centerpiece of any case. His office has doubled relocation services for those at risk and is working to ensure victims of crime are assigned an advocate. He’s turning the corner with his well-advertised and clearly stated mantra to be “smart on crime,” prioritizing victims, protecting witnesses, and holding folks accountable.

In a hearing that was dominated by the citation debate, Burnett and his council colleagues failed to grasp the significance of the state’s attorney’s budget requests. The committee should instead figure out how to provide the needed funding so our prosecutors can continue their remarkable job of holding people accountable and making the city safer for us all.

Wanda Keyes Heard served on the Baltimore City Court from February 1999 to December 2019, and was the first female chief judge of the 8th Judicial Circuit from 2017 to 2019. She also served as an assistant state’s attorney in the 1980s under Kurt L. Schmoke, and as chief of the Special Victims Unit under Stuart O. Simms from 1988 until 1991. She is a former assistant attorney general for Maryland and former assistant U.S. attorney. 

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