WASHINGTON – An aggressive federal campaign to get gun-toting felons off the streets has convicted a disproportionate number of Maryland blacks, according to Justice Department statistics.
Just under 78 percent of Maryland residents convicted for federal firearms violations from 1994 to 1999 were African Americans. The state population, by comparison, is 28 percent black.
But prosecutors said the conviction rate is reasonable in light of the state’s prison population, which is the group most likely to be prosecuted under Project Disarm, the main element of the crackdown. Maryland prisons are 78 percent black, according to state corrections officials.
“I don’t think the cases are subjectively taken,” said Stephen Schenning, first assistant to the U.S. Attorney for Maryland. “Most of the cases in Disarm are coming to us out of Baltimore City, which is closer in terms of racial composition” to the conviction rate.
The figures are “not surprising when you’re operating in Baltimore City. It’s fertile ground for people violating the law,” Schenning said. Baltimore’s population was 67 percent black in 1999, according to Census Bureau estimates.
But state officials and civil rights activists were not impressed with Schenning’s defense of the program. They said the racial disparity in the convictions “supports what we have been claiming” about the breakdown of civil rights and law enforcement in the state.
“Judges have a double standard. One for black, one for white,” said Delegate Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore.
“When you catch a poor black person — or just a black person — with a gun, the judges are just going to give them the time and not suspend the sentence,” said Branch, who is also chairman of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus. “They’re finding leniency for one group and not the other.”
Maryland’s federal firearms conviction rate for blacks was significantly higher than the national rate of 41 percent for African Americans in the same period, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 1999, the bureau said, 50 blacks were convicted of federal firearms charges in Maryland, compared to seven whites and one Hispanic.
But the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore said its aggressive firearm prosecution program is part of the reason homicides are down in Baltimore. Prosecutors particularly tout a 300 percent increase in federal firearms prosecutions since 1998 under Project Disarm.
U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia said in a prepared statement last week that the drop in shootings in Baltimore illustrates “the effectiveness of this balanced, joint state and federal approach.”
Project Disarm brings together local and federal law enforcement agencies in an attempt to get the most dangerous felons by prosecuting them in federal courts, rather than state or local courts. Only previously convicted felons caught with a gun can be prosecuted under the program.
It is similar to a program in Virginia, Project Exile, with one key difference: Project Disarm is aimed at getting longer sentences for the more- violent criminals, while Exile prosecutes all felons arrested for firearms violations. Critics say that the across-the-board approach of Project Exile is fairer and less subjective.
Federal prosecutors in Maryland estimated they take about a quarter of the possible cases they could prosecute.
“Project Disarm is cherry-picking the cases to prosecute. There is no uniform enforcement of gun laws,” said Jill Homan, an aide to Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, a supporter of Project Exile and frequent critic of Project Disarm.
Civil rights groups called Project Disarm another example of how there is not enough interaction between police and the community.
“We need improvement in crime and justice and race relations,” said G.I. Johnson, the president of Baltimore’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.