By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON- House Republicans unveiled a plan to allocate $100 million to states that enact mandatory prison sentences for gun crimes, but Maryland might not qualify for the bounty, supporters of the tougher sentences said.
The bill, introduced Wednesday, would reward states that implement programs similar to Project Exile, which sentences gun-toting criminals to mandatory prison terms and denies them bail and plea bargains. The measure would allocate $100 million over five years that would go to states that adopt such programs.
Project Exile has resulted in a 50 percent drop in the murder rate in Richmond, Va., since it was adopted there in 1994, said Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R- Timonium, and a co-sponsor of the federal bill. During the same period, Ehrlich noted, the murder rate in Baltimore has risen.
“We can do the common sense and the right thing,” said Ehrlich, who unsuccessfully urged federal prosecutors in Maryland to adopt a Project Exile- style program for Baltimore last summer.
But even if Maryland adopted such a program, Ehrlich said, it might not be able to capture some of the proposed $100 million federal funding because of the way the state’s sentencing laws are written.
“Mandatory is not always mandatory,” in Maryland, where state law allows criminals to petition to have their sentences reduced by a three-judge panel, said Jill Homan, an aide to Ehrlich.
Maryland is not the only state in that situation. Rep. Bill McCollum, R- Fla., said that only six states — Virginia, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Colorado — would qualify for funds if the bill became law today.
But McCollum, the main sponsor of the Safe Streets and Neighborhoods Act of 2000, said that once states realize the importance of the bill and the benefits that could come out of the funding, more of them will follow suit.
“This bill encourages the states because most crimes are state crimes, not federal,” he said.
Besides requiring mandatory minimum sentences, McCollum said that in order for a state to qualify for the grant, it would have to coordinate with federal law enforcement authorities to ensure that criminals who use guns receive tough sentences. States would also have to implement public awareness campaigns to let criminals know about the tougher sentences for gun crimes.
States could use the grant money in any way they want to strengthen their criminal and juvenile justice systems, backers said.
McCollum said Project Exile would let criminals know: “If you are going to do the crime, you will do the time.”