By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO

After another year of record breaking violence in Baltimore, the annual legislative session in Annapolis is awash in competing ideas on how to address the problem.

In lockstep with the get-tough policies emerging from President Donald Trump’s’ Department of Justice, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has pushed legislation that would add mandatory minimum sentences for a person caught with a gun twice, and a ‘truth’ in sentencing law that he says will insure early release is all but impossible for violent offenders.

Members of the Safe Streets violence prevention program are ex-felons, who play a major role in mediating conflicts before they escalate into violence or homicide. The program was formerly grant funded, now it is part of the City’s budget. (Photo courtesy of Baltimore City Health Department)

But a group of city delegates, including Majority Whip Talmadge Branch, are proposing less police intensive alternatives, including a bill that would expand the Safe Streets program across the city by establishing a permanent $3.6 million funding stream.

“Baltimore only has four locations now, but the numbers in violence reduction are phenomenal,” Branch told the AFRO.  “This bill will add ten additional sites.”

Currently Safe Streets operates in Cherry Hill, McElderry Park, Park Heights, and Sandtown-Winchester. Branch’s bill will fund ten new sites at yet to be determined locations across the city.

Unlike law enforcement’s emphasis on jails and punishment after the fact, Safe Streets seeks to mediate disputes before they escalate. Known as the ‘cure violence’ model, the program employs residents from the neighborhood who were previously incarcerated.

House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-45), has introduced legislation to increase funding for the Safe Streets violence prevention program. (Courtesy photo)

A 2012 study by Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control found neighborhoods with a Safe Streets site experienced an average of 56% reduction in killings and 34% fewer shootings. Branch says this quantifiable success supports the expansion he is proposing.

“These are the numbers safe streets produces, the programs works,“ he told the AFRO. The program is not without controversy. Levar Mullen, a former Safe Streets volunteer, was convicted of illegally possessing a firearm in 2014. Mullen was released from prison earlier this year after it was revealed several members of the disgraced Gun Trace Task Force were involved in his arrest.

Branch’s efforts to shepherd the bill through the legislature is informed by personal tragedy.

The veteran delegate’s 22-year old grandson Tyrone Ray was shot and killed in September 2017 in Northeast Baltimore in broad daylight.  Ray, who was on crutches at the time of the shooting, was gunned down by two yet to be identified males.  Police released video of the possible suspects, but no arrests have been made.

“If this works like it does in other areas than my grandson’s death will not be vain, this will save many, many lives,” Branch said.

One of the critical components of the bill, Branch says, is to insure a steady stream of funding for the program, something Safe Streets has lacked in the past.

During the administration of former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Safe Streets was funded primarily through grants.  As recently as the fiscal 2018 budget Mayor Catherine Pugh initially cut Safe Streets spending, agreeing to restore it after pushback from the city council.

Now, with the launch of Pugh’s Violence Reduction Initiative which features a daily convening of cabinet heads at police headquarters, the mayor says she fully supports Branch’s legislation.

“Safe Streets is a proven tool that communities can use to strengthen neighborhood efforts to address violence through outreach, public education, and by partnering with the faith community,” Pugh said in a statement.

“Baltimore City is seeking to expand this successful model and expand from four sites to ten, and this bill will enable that expansion.  I am extremely grateful to Del. Branch for leading this effort.”

The change of the heart is not limited to the Mayor.

Last month Branch said the Governor’s Department of Budget Management had initially opposed the bill. But Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chase explained the initial opposition was the result of standing policy to reject any bill that proposes mandatory spending.

“The governor supports Senator Zirkin’s omnibus crime bill, which includes funding for Baltimore City Safe Streets, in addition to most initiatives from the governor’s crime package,” Chase said in an email.

That bill includes both the new mandatory minimums for gun possession as well as Safe Streets funding.  Branch says he has not reviewed the Senate bill, but says he feels confident the package will pass.

“I have been looking at the crime package bill, I do like it.”