Monday, February 22, 2010

What I Really Believe

originally published December 2, 2008

Marc Steiner’s response to my article on the arrest of Charles Y. McGaney, one of the accused killers of former city councilman Ken Harris, perplexes me. He appears to sum up my position in Murder, Media and the Maddening Cycle as “playing the blame game and saying we should lock up all these guys without a second thought…”

But I never mentioned locking up McGaney prior to his murder arrest. And the criticism I leveled at State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy was for not prosecuting McGaney when she had him on drug charges, not for failing to imprison him. Marc wishes that McGaney could have had an “intervention program” for his criminal acts prior to Harris’s murder. You can’t intervene if you don’t prosecute at all.

Marc is clearly anti-prison. He thinks they create “Frankenstein monsters.” Perhaps, though I’d like to see the evidence. But McGaney spent only 85 days in county jail prior to the Harris murder, and only because he failed to appear for a court date and was arrested again. Prison didn’t make him a Frankenstein monster. Brandon Grimes, convicted this past summer of the murder of off-duty city police officer Troy Chesley, spent no time in prison before he killed. Prison didn’t make him a Frankenstein monster, either.

There are plenty of Frankenstein monsters for whom we can’t blame the prison system. We need to identify as many as we can before they shoot other people. Grimes couldn’t have murdered Chesley if the specialized gun unit of the State’s Attorney’s Office had lifted a finger to revoke his bail after he was arrested for a second handgun offense, or if the bail commissioner had kept him in jail on that second arrest. Jail is a surer prevention for murder than any intervention program when a criminal keeps breaking the law.

I support intervention programs. But they should meet at least two criteria: they should be based on research that suggests the program might work, and they must be monitored and evaluated for success. I have watched too much public money thrown away on “good ideas” that were far better in theory than in reality.

In the meantime—and simultaneously with any intervention programs-- we need to ride herd on criminals who pose a threat to kill. Prison isn’t always the first response. But it needs to be the response when offenders won’t behave. Marc says prison is for the “worst of the worst.” How do we determine who they are? After they have committed some heinous crime, or maybe a couple of heinous crimes? It’s too late then.

Some crimes cannot be predicted. The young man who firebombed the Dawson family in 2002, killing two adults and five children, wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar screen. But Grimes was easy to pick out as a risk. So was McGaney. So are many others. The feds, thank goodness, are getting some of them. But the city has to do its part for those who don’t qualify for federal prosecution.

I will continue to criticize Pat Jessamy until she puts a competent prosecutor in charge of focusing on dangerous criminals. Without the State’s Attorney taking the lead, there can be no effective violent offender program.

But Jessamy put her mendacious press aide, Margaret T. Burns, in charge, who makes it her job to obscure the facts and evade any responsibility. She does it in annual reports on the War Room (which is supposed to focus on repeat violent offenders) and she does it at Gunstat. (And she did it in the Zach Sowers case.) Her sole focus is to make Jessamy look good. It’s pitiful.

I will continue to criticize judges who won’t enforce most of the rules of probation and wait instead for dangerous defendants to commit new crimes. First-time offenders in the city almost always get probation unless they have hurt someone badly. In fact, judges are more than happy to impose probation on top of probation for second offenses and probation for violating probation.

But they (and probation agents) won’t hold the probationers to most of the rules. If a defendant won’t look for work or go back to school, why are they on the street? What is probation for anyway? To the credit of the O’Malley administration, the state probation division is trying to change its ways. Are the judges?

And I will criticize the other players in the system—bail commissioners, parole commissioners, and whoever else won’t lock up those who have been given multiple chances to “turn themselves around.” Marc suggests they aren’t getting this chance. In fact, they are given it over and over again.

We don’t have a “revolving door of justice” and a murderous city because of our prison system. We have a murderous city first, and the door revolves because we won’t change the way we handle our dangerous criminals. We don’t spend extra time monitoring them, and we are reluctant to lock them up when they won’t obey the law or the rules.

I am completely in favor of doing everything possible to give ex-offenders a chance at making it once they get out—and recently said so. But in the meantime, separating the dangerous from society may be the only way to protect that society. When it’s time to put them back on the street, let’s help them—and closely supervise them at the same time.

My plan doesn’t cost anything. It requires the willingness to rethink the way we do business. It requires leadership from the two most important and influential players in the criminal justice system: the State’s Attorney and the judiciary. And it requires the support of the citizens.

I don’t pretend that it will eliminate Baltimore’s violent crime problem. We need an overarching plan that includes education, employment, early intervention and reentry programs. I am talking only about better using our existing resources for those charged with adult offenses. (The juvenile system is a whole other can of worms.)

Page’s Plan

1. Determine who poses the greatest threat to life in this city. From simply a prosecutor’s perspective, this will include young men with juvenile arrest records who are involved with drug-dealing and guns. Loitering, trespassing, car thefts and assault are typical arrest patterns. I am sure this picture can be enhanced further by specific personal risk factors—education, home life and so on.

2. Monitor, monitor, monitor. If these high risk offenders are arrested for a gun or drug-dealing offense, bail commissioners and bail review judges should keep them off the street until trial. If probation is appropriate after conviction, closely supervise—and immediately get them off the street again if they fail in any of the rules of probation. If they demonstrate to the probation judge an inability to obey the rules, revoke their probation and give them their time. Stop waiting for the offender to commit or be convicted of a new crime. And make sentences consecutive to other sentences, not concurrent.

3. Reform the current system of prison credits and parole. It defies common sense, and puts dangerous offenders back on the street early. I will write about this shortly.

4. Supervise and handle parole violations for these offenders the same way as probation violations. Get them off the street fast, and don’t wait for new convictions if they have violated other rules. Take their prison credits when revoking parole.

5. Devote more prison and probation resources to the dangerous criminal by diverting them from drug addicts, prostitutes, and others who commit self-victimized crimes. (It’s too bad that Martin O’Malley as mayor aborted the Community Court just before it was about to give birth. It would have been perfect for these offenders.)

It’s not that these offenders don’t victimize the community in terms of quality of life. But prison and probation don’t have much impact on their behavior, while disproportionately punishing black drug users and women who engage in commercial sex (as opposed to men who do.) Arrest them to disrupt their public activity, fine. Offer them drug treatment and services, absolutely. But after that I would rather see what happens without prison and probation than continue the useless merry-go-round that overloads the system and keeps us from recognizing and addressing the real threats to personal safety. We don’t have unlimited resources. Let’s try a different approach and measure the impact.

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