Monday, February 22, 2010

What Baltimore Wants

originally published June 27, 2008

It seemed like an open and shut case. A citizen notified police that a young black man was sitting on some steps with a gun. The police arrived, found the gun at the man’s feet, and arrested him. The case went to trial and the defense called no witnesses.

The jury acquitted him.

This kind of result--not uncommon—frustrates police, prosecutors and even judges, and is one reason why defendants get lenient plea deals. But this jury explained its thinking—and the thinking of many juries-- after the verdict. They sent the defendant a note, begging him to use the break he got to put his life on the right track.

Baltimore’s citizens are afflicted by crime in two ways. One, they grieve over their lost young men, who spend so much of their lives in and out of jail. They want the police who arrest them to be unbiased and legally justified. They want “the system” to give the law-breakers, many of whom come from difficult backgrounds, a chance to change their ways. They want their young men back with their families.

But they also suffer—more than anyone else who may be wringing their hands on the outside—at the hands of the criminals. The drug dealers loitering in front of their houses and schools, trespassing on their steps and porches, intimidating those who obey the law, the shootings that claim both their innocent young and the young men who are part of that culture—this they want to stop as well. They want the police to stop it and the courts to stop it.

They bring this conflict with them as jurors. The young man with the gun--he hadn’t hurt anyone with it, and they wanted him to get a second chance, not to waste years behind bars. What they didn’t know was that he was on probation for armed robbery. He already had his second chance. With the third chance the jury gave him, he went out to sell drugs. It’s a matter of time before he kills, if he hasn’t already, or gets killed.

The law does not permit most juries to know about criminal records. But prosecutors know, and not just about convictions. They know, or should know, that a pattern of arrests can be very revealing. For example, a person with no convictions but two dropped attempted murder cases is more dangerous than the convicted drug felon whose other arrests were for theft. The first has the power to intimidate and get away with violent behavior. The second is probably supporting a habit.

But the volume of crime--driven by drugs--is so high that everyone is treated pretty much the same. A person selling drugs will be treated like an addict. A robber convicted for the first time will get probation. These may be appropriate results, depending on the circumstances. But the criminal justice system does not know which circumstances are relevant, or how to assess the dangerousness of the offenders who come before them.

Dajuan Carter, who I wrote about in my first blog (Baltimore’s Failed War Room), was a walking time bomb. And his was an easy case, in my view. Yet no one recognized it until it was too late.

In my last assignment in the city’s State’s Attorney’s Office I had three roles. One was to resolve the cases of jailed persons charged with minor offenses as quickly as possible. A second was to charge—and not charge—cases brought by the police to the Central Booking Facility. The third was to supervise the War Room, a program that was supposed to focus on repeat violent offenders. In those three roles together I began to understand what I hadn’t known for much of my career: how to distinguish between the dangerous criminals and those who need alternatives to prison.

In a city where resources are always stretched and scarce, knowing how to take the truly dangerous off the street is critical to accomplishing both of the things that Baltimore’s citizens want. Send the non-violent to drug treatment, to job training, to their families, with assistance to keep them from destroying the quality of life for others as they improve their own. Use prison resources for the truly dangerous, until they are no longer dangerous (and offer them the tools to become productive once they are out.)

But to get there, we must first recognize who belongs in which group. That’s why the War Room was important, why creativity is needed, and why the governor must appoint the best judges, issues I touched on in my first three blogs. Most of all we must have a master plan, dynamic leadership from every criminal justice agency, and accountability. This the system still lacks, but it is not out of reach.

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