Monday, February 22, 2010

Anatomy of a Baltimore Tragedy

originally published July 28, 2009

A little girl is shot on a city sidewalk. While she clings to life, police arrest the alleged shooter. The public begins to learn about his inevitable record: many arrests, currently under state supervision, but nevertheless free to engage in a street feud where he shoots not only his intended victim but the five-year old girl.

Since the shooter is only 17, the agency that was supposed to be monitoring him, the Department of Juvenile Services, comes under fire. The agency’s top man, Donald DeVore questions—apparently for the first time—the high-tech system that was being used to monitor the juvenile’s whereabouts. But later he defends his agency. In a quote to the Baltimore Sun, he says, “Do I think that we need to be concerned that juvenile offenders are not being held accountable? No. They are being held accountable.”

The Baltimore Sun doesn’t agree. “[This case] suggests serious problems with how the criminal justice system deals with violent juvenile offenders; there’s got to be a better way,” the editors say. Of course, they don’t tell us what that better way is.

And neither can anybody else. Let’s take State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy, for example, whose spokesperson Margaret T. Burns provided this observation to the Sun: “The state has an archaic system in which we operate under the misimpression that everyone under 18 can be rehabilitated for repeatedly committing violent crimes. We must find a way to provide rehabilitation, but also accountability and punishment.”

Yet as recently as last November Burns could not explain to city gun analysts why a juvenile who was on bail for armed robbery in adult court had been arrested three more times on juvenile charges without prosecutors doing anything to revoke his bail and take him off the street.

And then the finale to the tragic event: the General Assembly will be holding hearings in the fall to take a look at the Department of Juvenile Services and how it conducts business. This is the “do something” response that’s unlikely to do much of anything except fluff up some political profiles.

The pattern repeats itself with each shooting or death of an innocent. Whether the victim is a little girl, a young boy delivering grapefruits to a neighbor, a soldier home on leave, a college student back on break, or a former city councilman stopping by a night club to borrow a corkscrew—the tragedies keep on coming. These are followed by revelations about those who shoot them, how many times they have been in trouble, and how little has been done to stop them, all leading to the perception that the criminal justice system is “broken.”

The newspaper calls for change, without offering specifics. City and state leaders, elected and unelected, bewail and bemoan and call for action, for “something” to be done. Agency heads go on the defensive. A government that calls itself “transparent,” as the O’Malley administration does, suddenly isn’t so transparent, locking out the record of the shooter even to those who should have access. Sometimes, “something” is done—a new law or a new program, implemented without any real idea of whether it will have any effect, the illusion of a response to the tragedy.

And then we go through it all again. And again.

Do we ever really find out whether the tragedy was something that could have been predicted and prevented? Whether there was a single human mistake or a systemic failure, or neither? Do we know whether or not the agency under fire had been working diligently on the issues that have come into public view? And most importantly, do we ever find out if the “solution” or solutions, if any, are effective in any way?

No. We move on. The media, the politicians, the citizens. Until the next time.

If we are going to stop this pattern, this cycle of tragedy and reaction, we must have knowledge. We must constantly identify, study and evaluate what the problems are and how we are attempting to solve them. An effective criminal justice system begins with research and reflection, not reaction.

Do we have such a system? I will discuss that issue next time.

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