Monday, September 27, 2010
Reflections on the Election
Anyone who has followed my blog knows how I feel about the change in the Baltimore state's attorney's office that's coming this January.
But I was glad to see the compliments bestowed upon the defeated incumbent, Pat Jessamy, after the voters pronounced their verdict. As sharply and persistently critical as I have been of her professional performance, I have always respected her personally. Never did I question her commitment to public service. Never did I see her personal or political concerns influence an individual case.
I remember one time when a city prosecutor was arrested for disorderly conduct. I called Jessamy late at night to tell her about the arrest and to discuss how to charge the case. She asked what I wanted to do, and I told her that to be consistent with our charging practices I would decline to charge the case because there was little point to prosecution. (The prosecutor was drunk and interfering with police and gave them no choice but to arrest her. A classic "abated by arrest" scenario.) However, I said, perhaps Jessamy would be concerned about public perception.
Immediately she said that she would not want to treat the prosecutor differently than any other member of the public. That was always my personal experience with Jessamy, making the case decision she thought was best whatever the consequences.
Her downfall came with the people she surrounded herself with, yes-people chosen for their personal loyalty rather than for competence and ability. In particular, she gave unfettered authority to Margaret T. Burns, the most disingenuous and divisive person I have ever met in my professional life.
Burns provided the public a small glimpse of her style in the Zach Sowers case, when she tried to undermine the widow of a murder victim who had criticized the handling of the case. Burns suggested that the victim hadn't been murdered after all, and that the widow had blocked the truth by refusing an autopsy. Had Jessamy been wise enough to repudiate Burns for these ridiculous, even malicious comments she probably would still be state's attorney. Instead she hitched her wagon to Burns and went down to defeat.
It's time now to look to the future, and I see a new energy and creativity coming for the prosecutor's office. Bernstein has a huge challenge before him, facing a culture that's entrenched not just among prosecutors but throughout the criminal justice system. But he had the guts to take on an incumbent that no one gave him a chance to beat, so I have to like his chances.
One thing that shouldn't take too long to improve will be the police-prosecutor partnership. Reading Peter Hermann's opinion piece on Sunday, one would think the problem's been a wide philosophical divide that needs to be bridged. He writes, for example:
"And sorry, it's not the bickering that causes the suffering [for city residents], as a colleague has repeatedly and rightfully pointed out to me. The bickering is a result of what has been a fundamental difference in how Jessamy and various top officers and mayors have wanted to police and protect the city."
Sorry, it is the bickering that caused the suffering. The bickering reflected a refusal to work together, first by O'Malley excluding Jessamy from formulating his crime strategy, then by Jessamy for rejecting every idea emanating from the police while failing to offer her own concrete plan. Had they been talking, they even could have come to consensus on "zero-tolerance", finding better ways to accomplish the intended purpose. It wasn't a philosophical divide between police and prosecutors, it was plain old personal in-fighting. I was there. I saw it.
Besides, once O'Malley left for Annapolis Jessamy did come on board the Gunstat program (while Burns continued to sling arrows, albeit more subtly.) There was no divide on the philosophy of fighting guns and violence. The dispute boiled down to mutual effectiveness and ineffectiveness, and who to blame.
So there shouldn't be far to go to form a working partnership now. That won't make Bernstein a "rubber stamp" for police. It just means that they can talk and work out differences professionally and in the best interest of the public.
And one false issue raised by the campaign rhetoric was the idea that one must choose between treatment and prevention programs and locking up criminals. Not so.
Bernstein can and should keep staff assigned to alternative, problem solving programs such as Drug Treatment Court, Mental Health Court, and prostitution diverson. These programs handle those whose behavior may be treatable and preventable, and they do good work. Bernstein doesn't need to divert resources from these programs, he just needs to work smarter and more effectively at prosecuting the violent criminals. He must tap into the strategical resources available to better target those criminals. He already brings the trial expertise needed to make more charges stick.
January can't come soon enough. In the meantime, I will be writing this fall about aspects of the criminal justice system that the Maryland General Assembly should address when it convenes, also in January. And no doubt won't.