Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Failed Program, A Failed Relationship, and the Possibility of Change

I began my blog two years ago with Baltimore’s Failed War Room. The War Room was supposed to focus upon violent offenders to keep them off the streets. From my perspective as the War Room supervisor, it failed to make a meaningful difference, not because it couldn’t, but because no one was trying. War Room offenders returned to the street, free to commit more crimes.

All I could do, however, was present anecdotes. So I decided to study the data myself, the same data that Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy would not share with anyone. The results are contained in A Study of War Room Offenders, which I am publishing today.

The general public might find the terminology and data boring. But the Executive Summary says this: that the State's Attorney's Office achieved a conviction rate of only 35% for War Room offenders. And that judges and parole commissioners revoked the probation and parole of War Room offenders barely more than a third of the time despite new convictions.

Jessamy may assail these and other findings as coming from a former “disgruntled” employee. But she has the data herself.

And I am not publishing the data out of some personal problem with Jessamy. To this day I think Jessamy is a fundamentally decent person. But she took no interest in the War Room, which had opened my eyes to the deficiencies of the criminal justice system. I have a philosophical difference with her about what the State’s Attorney’s Office can be doing to improve the criminal justice system. The War Room data reveals what it's not doing.

I have a second major difference with Jessamy, which I have also written about. She thinks she can be an effective advocate while undermining the police department. On the contrary, her decision to use the police as a tool to further her political standing has undermined public safety. New ideas, new strategies, and an honest critique of current efforts arrive stillborn when one partner wants to control or blame the other.

Even the recent, alleged murder of a citizen by an off-duty police officer reflects the tension that she alone now promotes. From the public’s point of view, it was hard to understand why the officer wasn’t arrested on the spot for what appeared to be the execution of an unarmed man. He wasn’t because some witnesses at the scene claimed that he had identified himself as a police officer and defended himself. But when police investigators determined this claim was false, they were ready to arrest two days later.

But prosecutors first retraced all the steps themselves, taking more than twice as long as the police and leaving what appears to be a dangerous person free on the street. A healthy, police-prosecutor relationship wouldn’t have exposed the public to that risk, or created the perception of a double standard. This was one of the more subtle consequences of the poor relationship.

I have felt strongly enough about both of these differences with Jessamy to publicly challenge her policies. The city prosecutor’s office can and should be a leader in changing the criminal justice culture, but isn’t moving in that direction.

Speaking of change, the Baltimore Sun reported Friday the interesting speculation that a credible challenger to Jessamy may soon emerge. Unless and until that happens, I have no comment to make. But I couldn’t help but be struck by Jessamy's statement that she confronted Governor Martin O’Malley about recruiting someone to challenge to her.

First of all, it wouldn’t be the first time. He has tried to find opponents before.

Secondly, Jessamy owes O’Malley. Big time.

It was Mayor O’Malley who rescued her floundering 2002 re-election chances by publicly demanding that she get off her lazy "ass” and prosecute a case that his police department had bungled. The insult raised a racist image that backfired resoundingly in the African American community. It also, by the way, was false. Jessamy may have her management and leadership issues, but she is in no way lazy. Jessamy was re-elected in 2002 and has raised her profile and influence ever since.

Secondly, when Jessamy was privately talking in 2006 about serving another two years and then retiring, O’Malley (and his enablers on the Board of Estimates) suddenly raised her salary about $80,000. He never explained his motive, but it seemed obvious that he wanted to entice someone to run against her. Problem was, she had just been re-elected to a new four year term. Instead of retiring into the sunset, she announced to her staff that she planned to stay until she earned her 30-year retirement from the city and what will be a fat, six-figure pension based in large part on her $229,500 salary.

So it seems to me that anytime O’Malley wants to undermine Jessamy she should be laughing. All the way to the bank.

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