Portrait of crime shows our future bound in chains

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 03, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Outside Courtroom No. 3 on Wabash Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, the nine of them are chained at the hands and ankles so that, shuffling through the long marble corridor, they look like some surrealistic charm bracelet from hell.

They've arrived for arraignment hearings, eight young men and one old, haggard, confused guy with Hands Across America printed on his T-shirt who lifts his arms to display some court papers and sets off a chain reaction of other hands connected to his.

"Hey, man," come a couple of protesting voices, as arms are tugged involuntarily into the air and become hands across the courtroom.

It's the most routine of courtroom business, now grimly translated to raw numbers that arrived on Tuesday: a 10-page report from the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives that says 56 percent of Baltimore's black men between 18 and 35 were either in prison, on parole or probation, being sought on arrest warrants or awaiting trial on any given day last year.

The report reads like an essay on a community self-destructing. It's reflected here in Courtroom No. 3, where eight of the nine handcuffed men are black.

Most have histories of substance abuse; many have been violent. One stands here with no belt on his pants and no shirt on his back, charged with battery and possession of a deadly weapon.

"They were selling drugs in front of my house," he says. "But I wasn't involved in it. Somebody just hit me in my face, but it wasn't my fault, see?"

He's got a history that includes beating up his own mother. She wants him barred from her house. A probation report says he has a history of drug abuse. You watch one arraignment charge melt into another -- burglary becoming drug possession becoming more drug possession -- and sense an entire generation on the skids.

"Really tragic," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says later in the day from his City Hall office. "We're going to feel the effect for years to come."

"It's part of a disturbing trend," says Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms, standing outside the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse minutes later. "Not just in Baltimore but in cities across America."

As for reasons, they round up the usual suspects: lack of legitimate job prospects, lousy schools, crummy housing, family breakdowns, no brighter prospects in the foreseeable future. And always, always, the drugs.

This new study calls drug abuse the driving force behind crime. Such a claim will surprise exactly no one except perhaps the nice man in the White House. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, George Bush devoted exactly one sentence to narcotics. He said cocaine use among teen-agers had dropped, and then he bolted to another subject, as though this singular blip on the narcotics screen indicated larger trends. That is precisely untrue.

But, if Bush might pretend to find the narcotics data surprising, no one is even feigning shock over the raw statistics about arrests of young black men. Including these:

* Blacks numbered more than 11,000 of about 13,000 people arrested on drug charges in the city last year.

* Of the juveniles arrested here last year, 82 percent were black.

* There were 1,304 black youths charged with drug sales last year. A decade ago, the figure was 86.

Whites read the figures and nod their heads knowingly, seeing a numerical reflection of their own anxieties. Blacks shudder over the numbers. Whatever fears are felt by whites are magnified among blacks, who bear the brunt of black crime.

And all of it -- the numbers, the crimes, the scenes in courtrooms every day -- serve to drive wedges between communities struggling to find peace with each other.

"My hope," Mayor Schmoke was saying Tuesday afternoon, "is that national policy-makers see these figures and realize they're the same around the country. Maybe this can be a wake-up call."

The last 12 years have not been kind to cities. Federal money has dried up. Republican presidents, knowing their votes have moved to suburbia, have walked away from urban problems. And the drug traffic, as personified in Bush's acceptance speech, is now perceived largely as a problem for minorities, who are also perceived as non-Republicans, thus making narcotics not a subject for serious discussion.

"I wish I had money to put into prevention," Stuart Simms was saying Tuesday. He glanced up from Calvert Street, toward the courthouse. "In two hours, I'm meeting with a group of non-violent juveniles with learning disabilities.

"We can still help these kids. But I couldn't get a grant to put together a whole program, so I've got to do it on my own. Maybe the feds think the government shouldn't be involved. Maybe I didn't put my proposal in a fancy enough cover," he said sarcastically.

"But doesn't it make sense to get to some of these people before they're out of hand? Instead of whatever it is we're doing now?"

The night the report came out, Schmoke met with Democratic presidential contender Bill Clinton. He'd already alerted Clinton's people that the report was coming, in case there were questions about it.

"What I'd like to see," Schmoke said Tuesday, "is a presidential debate, and a reporter reads the Baltimore study and asks both these guys on national TV: 'What's your reaction to it -- and what are you going to do about it?' "

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