Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake today announced the reassignment of two assistant state’s attorneys to the U.S. attorney’s office to get “the worst of the worst” off the streets through federal prosecutions.
The bureaucratic shuffle follows the worst three weeks of violence in Baltimore since Rawlings-Blake took office in February 2010.
According to the mayor – whose office alerted the media to an “important announcement on crime reduction efforts” following yesterday’s 21st homicide since June 21 – federal courts provide a greater opportunity for longer jail sentences for violent criminals than the state system.
“We know that when people have the threat of federal time, that it’s a deterrent,” the mayor said during a 15-minute press conference at City Hall this morning. “We want to use the strongest deterrent that we can to allow us to create safer neighborhoods.”
Flanked by U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, Rawlings-Blake said that doubling the number of prosecutors, from two to four, assigned to the federal courts will reduce crime and violence.
She shrugged off a question about the difficulty of finding witnesses willing to testify against violent criminals.
Murder of a Reportedly Cooperating Witness
The problem of witness intimidation and retaliation was underscored by yesterday’s double killing of a brother and sister on North Fulton Avenue. The 34-year-old man had been shot last year after cooperating with investigators.
The mayor said the city was “overcoming” the issue of witnesses afraid to cooperate with police and prosecutors through better investigations and the efforts of Police Commissioner Anthony Batts.
“He has a high-level command staff, a dedicated unit developing and building relationships of trust in the community that supplement the work we’re doing by targeting these violent offenders,” the mayor said.
But she cautioned, “This only works if we have seasoned prosecutors that know the ropes and can get the job done. So it is a sacrifice that is not overlooked by me that the state’s attorney is making to detail seasoned attorneys to this.”
According to State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, “The U.S. attorney’s office has a vetting process. We gave them a number of candidates and they then interviewed them. And they’re currently going through background checks. And as soon as that is done, we are ready to go.”
The city will pay the cost of hiring two new assistant state’s attorneys to replace the senior prosecutors going to Rosenstein’s office, Rawlings-Blake said.
Calling on Federal Resources
While Maryland laws “are certainly tough enough to punish criminals,” Bernstein said that adding federal resources offers a “better strategic use” of scarce city manpower.
“To the extent that Mr. Rosenstein is committing his resources and the resources of ATF [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], FBI and DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], it allows us to continue a collaborative relationship and enhances these prosecutions.”
In his remarks, Rosenstein complimented Baltimore for accomplishing what many people thought was “impossible” – lowering the number of homicides to less than 200 in 2011.
In 2012, however, the murder rate rose to 217, a 10% increase over 2011’s 197 homicides. Rosenstein said that “we” intend to lower the number of murders back to 200 – “and to keep it falling.”
With the number of homicides running significantly higher so far this year, the recent spike in violence is a major headache for Rawlings-Blake, who has made reducing crime and violence her top priority.
Shifting the two city prosecutors to the federal level was the mayor’s idea, Batts told the media, saying the mayor first broached it to him last February. He lauded the proposal as another strategic tool in the fight against violence that “starts with boots on the ground” by police and ends in the courtroom.
Another impetus for prosecuting more crime on the federal level is that convicted criminals will be “incarcerated in locations far away,” Bernstein said.
His statement was a clear reference to revelations that the Baltimore City Detention Center was run by Black Guerilla Family members who impregnated guards and freely trafficked in money, drugs and sex under the nose of state prison officials.