News Article

Witness intimidation, other Baltimore crime issues among Maryland priorities in new Congress
January 2, 2024


By: Jeff Barker

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume had his home city in mind when drafting legislation to assist communities struggling to protect witnesses from intimidation in violent crime cases.

“I can tell you Baltimore would be right at the top of the list,” said the Democratic lawmaker, whose bill would authorize $150 million in grants over five years for programs across the nation to help keep witnesses safe through relocation or other means.

The measure targets communities facing a “prevalence of witness intimidation” that makes prosecutions particularly challenging.

Assisting Baltimore with violent crime prosecutions and prevention is among a number of legislative priorities for Maryland’s U.S. House and Senate members when the new congressional session begins Tuesday.

Others include an effort to revive Baltimore’s Red Line light rail project, and boosting federal resources and public access to the Chesapeake Bay.

Six of Maryland’s Democratic congressmen — and Rep. Andy Harris, the only Republican — are returning to Washington after prevailing in the November election. Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen was also reelected.

The only delegation member not returning is Democrat Anthony Brown of the 4th District, who was elected state attorney general. Voters picked Democrat Glenn Ivey, a former Prince George’s County state’s attorney, to replace him.

Baltimore has been seeking more federal help to combat crime, and has worked with the Biden administration on initiatives to deter gun traffickers and share information with other cities about community violence intervention programs.

With the city surpassing 300 homicides in 2022 for the eighth consecutive year, the area’s federal lawmakers say more must be done.

Baltimore prosecutors often encounter difficulties securing key witnesses. Outgoing Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, a Democrat, has called Baltimore the “home of witness intimidation,” referencing an underground “Stop Snitching” DVD from 2004 featuring people denouncing government cooperators.

While technology has offered new ways to solve cases, victim and witness cooperation remains critical.

“Baltimore, unfortunately, became renowned for this ‘Stop Snitching’ culture over the last 15 years or so,” said Mfume, who wrote in a 1996 autobiography of growing up among young gang members on the city’s streets.

“It hangs over the city, it hangs over the criminal justice system, and that’s why so many people don’t show up to give testimony when they’ve seen something or they know something,” Mfume said.

Mfume also plans to promote legislation called the “Identifying Mass Shooters Act.” It would direct the National Institute of Justice to analyze online content created by mass shooters to help authorities identify potential patterns.

Another crime-related measure, this one sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, directs the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a grant program for trauma centers and nonprofits to create or expand violence intervention programs. The bill was approved by the House in 2021, but did not clear the Senate.

Mfume introduced both of his anti-crime measures in the 2021-2022 session, where they attracted mostly Democratic supporters and didn’t advance.

Mfume and Ruppersberger plan to reintroduce their bills. It is not uncommon for legislation to languish for a two-year session or longer while sponsors seek momentum and support.

Criminal justice is a rare area in which Republicans, who will control the House, and Democrats have occasionally come together in recent years. In December 2018, then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, signed the First Step Act, which was broadly supported by Democrats and aimed at minimizing the warehousing of prisoners and helping former inmates steer clear of crime.

But the GOP-led House hasn’t yet picked a speaker — that happens Tuesday — and its agenda is not yet clear. Republicans seized a narrow House majority in the midterm elections, and Maryland Democrats are emphasizing initiatives they believe can attract crossover support.

Other legislative priorities for Maryland Democrats include the Red Line and the Chesapeake Bay. Republican Harris declined to be interviewed about the new session.

A bill drafted by Van Hollen and Baltimore-area U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes would create a unified Chesapeake National Recreation Area, qualifying the region for additional federal assistance and improving and encouraging public access.

The designation “would really elevate to a higher level of consciousness — in Maryland, in the region and, frankly, nationally — what the Chesapeake Bay is all about,” Sarbanes said.

The federal government has long been involved with the bay through restoration plans. The recreation area would unify a number of existing parks and destinations around the nation’s largest estuary under a common umbrella. Maryland lawmakers said the recreation area would build on a 2014 bay restoration agreement among the region’s governors.

“One of the main goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement is increasing public access to the bay’s resources,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. He said the legislation “would help do just that.”

Cardin and Van Hollen also hope to revive — at least in some form — the Red Line, a planned Baltimore light rail system rejected by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015.

Language allowing the project to be revisited — as part of billions of dollars in capital investment grants — was included in a massive infrastructure package approved by Congress in 2021. The language, secured by the Maryland senators, specified that such previously vetted projects be placed at the front of the line for federal transit funding consideration, assuming state and local leaders endorse them.

It had a $2.9 billion price tag in 2015.

Incoming Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, has said he favors the Red Line, which also would require significant state financing.