Monday, February 22, 2010

Baltimore's Violent Crime: The Bad News

originally published November 14, 2008

Count me among those who view Barack Obama’s election as a thrilling triumph for America. But since my topic is criminal justice, and this piece is on the bad news about Baltimore’s violent crime, I have to mention a potential dark lining to the silver cloud.

With a new, Democratic administration comes the likely ouster of current Bush appointees. That includes Maryland’s U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Baltimore’s decrease in murders and shootings (see Part I.)

When George W. Bush nominated Rosenstein to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals last year, Maryland’s Democratic senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin objected. According to their spokespersons (as quoted by the Baltimore Sun) Rosenstein lacked “Maryland specific experience” (though paradoxically he was “doing a good job as U.S. Attorney” for Maryland.) His nomination stalled and now likely is dead.

But having sabotaged Rosenstein’s judicial nomination for political reasons, perhaps Mikulski and Cardin can champion his continuing as U.S. Attorney for nonpolitical reasons, if he’s willing to stay on. Rosenstein not only has been a true career public servant for over 22 years, his leadership and commitment to Maryland has significantly dented gang activity and Baltimore’s murder rate. We need him.

But Rosenstein can’t solve all of Baltimore’s violent crime woes. Lurking behind the good news on the drop in murders and shootings is the fact that robberies are rising and overall violent crime is unchanged. Former police commissioner Leonard Hamm once said that when police become more effective at fighting the drug war, drug dealers turn to robbery. Informants are saying the same thing to federal prosecutors. And we saw it personalized in shocking fashion by the murder of former city councilman Kenneth N. Harris, Sr.

Harris, before becoming a murder statistic, was first the victim of an armed robbery. Several brutal young men, so brazen that they coolly completed the robbery of the New Haven Lounge after shooting the fleeing Harris, bear the earmarks of the same violent criminals who murder over drugs.

So success in battling drug-related shootings and killings doesn’t mean the end of violence. If violent criminals stop shooting each other (and innocent bystanders) over drugs, they will victimize even more of the innocent in other ways. This tells us what we all should know but rarely act like we do.

Law enforcement alone cannot make Baltimore safe. Young, unemployed, uneducated men represent the biggest threat group for violent crime. If they are not working, what are they doing? Law enforcement can’t educate them, provide alternatives to crime, and offer decent jobs. The best the criminal justice system can do for those who must be locked up is to offer meaningful in-prison training and re-entry programs for release back to the community. If ex-felons can’t get jobs, exactly what do we expect will happen?

But post-prison planning must be coupled with intervention for at-risk youth before they reach a point where incarceration is the only means of protecting the community. Focusing only or even mainly upon catching and punishing criminals will never stop the violence for good.

Watching members of Baltimore’s City Council posture over police accountability for solving the Harris murder (and other murders) is painful. They really don’t think the police are doing everything possible to solve a case that has caused such pain in this city? These people should be out doing the work and showing the leadership that would lead to reducing violent crime. They should be working to change a culture of hopelessness, alienation and victimization, not grandstanding over unsolved murders.

And if they want the murders solved, they can do something besides calling out the police, like working to make their constituents understand just how bogus the “stop-snitching” culture really is (you should hear the tough guys sing when the feds get hold of them.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. and others gave their lives not just to see an African American elected to this country’s highest office. They gave them so that all Americans can live in peace with each other while pursuing equal opportunities. Achieving that ultimate vision won’t be up to the police, the courts, or the prisons. It will come when all children can grow up in an environment of hope and opportunity.

I will continue to talk about the parts of the criminal justice system that can be improved. But we citizens must remember that while law enforcement plays a role in public safety, our overall community—home, education, work—plays the bigger role. I have seen too much money wasted on quick-fix law enforcement projects and strategies that fix nothing. We need an overarching, long-term public safety plan that goes beyond law enforcement.

Do we the citizens have the patience and fortitude for this, and will we demand such a plan from our leaders? If we don’t the cycle of violence will only continue, in one form or another.

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