Officials question study of city's young black men

September 03, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Despite a report showing that 56 percent of young black men in Baltimore were in trouble with the law, the city's top law enforcement official said yesterday that "there are more good ones than bad ones."

State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms said the report by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA) included so many minor offenses and charges that it unintentionally supported "the bad stereotype of African-American males ages 18 to 35 today."

Del. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Governor's Commission on Black Males, said the report -- which made front-page news Tuesday -- told black male students "on the very day they began school that you're probably not going to make it. That's a hell of a message to send out."

But both officials said they agreed with the report's conclusion that American society was dealing with young black men mainly by punishing them and not by developing programs that could help prevent them from getting into trouble.

"The criminal justice system is the forced solution to too many problems," Mr. Simms said. "The real solution lies at the front end --through prevention, education, job training, new housing."

Mr. Cummings said that "if all you see is black men being arrested, there's an assumption when a black man walks down the street that he will do harm. I feel it even as an elected official and a Phi Beta Kappa. I feel as a black man that I'm being watched."

The report said 34,025 of the 60,715 young black men in Baltimore, or 56 percent, were "under criminal justice supervision on any given day in 1991."

Herbert J. Hoelter, director of NCIA, said the report was intended to show how young black men are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system -- often for petty offenses -- not to further negative stereotypes of young black men.

The report accused the U.S. "drug war" of being racially biased and of making young black men the enemy. It said the large number of young black men in trouble was "the predictable consequence of having replaced the social safety net with the dragnet."

"When you really look at the crime data itself, violent crime in the entire city represents only 8 percent of arrests," Mr. Hoelter said. "Drug arrests are largely low-level possession and distribution charges. Easily 80 percent of drug arrests are corner street dealers."

Mr. Hoelter said NCIA, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that advocates community-based alternatives to imprisonment, did not try to find out what percentage of white men age 18 to 35 in Baltimore were in trouble with the law.

Those figures were not immediately available.

The study also didn't show what offenses the young black men were convicted or accused of, but Mr. Hoelter said most were clearly minor.

For example, Mr. Hoelter, who lives in Baltimore, recalled driving to a youth basketball game with a fellow coach who was pulled over by police in a traffic stop. The coach, a young black man, was handcuffed and taken away when an officer found an outstanding warrant against him on a "failure to wear a seat belt ticket that he didn't go to court on," he said.

About one-fourth of the young black men cited in the study as being in trouble with the law in 1991 were in state prison or on parole.

The great majority -- more than two-thirds -- were on probation, awaiting trial or had outstanding arrest warrants against them.

Most offenders who receive probation from Baltimore's Circuit Court are convicted of minor drug offenses, assault, larceny and motor vehicle violations, including drunken driving, according to state figures.

Richard A. Tamberrino, research director for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said probation data probably overstate the number of people on probation "by 10 percent or a little more" because they track cases, not individuals.

Outstanding warrants can include charges ranging from murder to nonpayment of child support or failure to appear for a court date. Mr. Simms pointed out that anyone can swear out a warrant against another person in Maryland by going to a District Court commissioner.

NCIA staff members said the figures on outstanding warrants were a conservative estimate based on data supplied by the Baltimore police.

The city sheriff's office, which serves arrest warrants, said it doesn't keep track of alleged offenders by age, race or sex.

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