On the brink

May 20, 1991

To every citizen genuinely concerned about the future of Baltimore, the penetrating series of articles by Evening Sun reporter Raymond L. Sanchez last week on the overload of the criminal justice system in Baltimore carried the terrifying sound of a fire bell in the night.

"Organized bedlam" . . . "fast-forward justice" . . . "a machine churning out guilty pleas" . . . "a judicial system choked with drug cases" -- these were the phrases which rang loudly in the series. At times the articles sounded like pages from the sensational novel of urban collapse, "Bonfire of the Vanities" -- except that Sanchez was not writing fiction.

It is clear that the various components of the criminal justice system -- the judges, the prosecutors, the public defenders, the probation officers -- are all working heroically to make the overloaded system work. But it is equally clear that the system is tottering on the brink of collapse.

And yet we continue to hear the siren voices of the National Rifle Association and other fanatical groups clamoring for more and more people to be sent to jail. Would that those people could be put in charge of the criminal justice system for just a day. They would quickly discover that the courts are in such a state of overload that if every defendant asserted his or her constitutional right to a jury trial, the system would collapse at once of its own torpid weight. As a consequence, plea-bargaining has become virtually a way of life, and even bargaining for pleas has become an assembly-line process fraught with peril. Over the past year, well over 90 percent of all cases that came before judges were resolved with guilty pleas.

Can this be improved by building more prisons, adding more judges? Perhaps. But it would involve not merely adding just a few judges or constructing more prisons. It would mean increasing the whole mechanism tenfold -- and, we hasten to add, increasing public expenditures commensurately. At some point, we might as well just put bars around the whole city.

No, the answer is not to enlarge the punishment mechanism. The answer is to address the intractable causes of the inner-city malaise which produce this intolerable situation. And that includes, first and foremost, the hydra-headed problem of poverty.

Perhaps we will understand this when we realize that we simply can no longer pay the exploding costs of our neglect.

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