Baltimore's crime and punishment

Gregory P. Kane

September 28, 1992|By Gregory P. Kane

BALTIMORE city police officer James Young Jr. was shot and critically wounded Sept. 18 while trying to arrest three alleged drug dealers. The next day, Officer Ira Weiner was repeatedly stabbed with an ice pick and then shot by a man on drugs. He died two days later.

Not accustomed to seeing two police officers shot in the line of duty in as many days, the city immediately, predictably (and appropriately, in this case) went into a fit of dudgeon that just barely stopped short of the thin line that separates legitimate fear from hysteria.

The media spent the better part of a week covering the shootings. There were calls for more police officers; a resolution from the City Council expressed "shock and outrage;" there were demands for stiffer penalties for criminals; and there was a proposal from Mayor Kurt Schmoke to reinstitute the death penalty -- an idea not exactly brimming with originality.

It was as though the shootings were totally unexpected. But how could they be? City police officers, for certain, knew this day was coming.

So did many of us civilians. In some Baltimore neighborhoods residents can hear gunshots every night. Every night! Which means that some thug or drug dealer is shooting at some other thug or drug dealer every night. Sometimes they hit their targets. Often they don't. (This is a gang that doesn't often shoot straight.) Thus we have a plethora of innocent bystanders being shot -- infants, toddlers, children, mothers, senior citizens. Hoodlums have shot just about everybody but cops, so those of us in neighborhoods under siege already had concluded that the shooting of a city police officer was a tragic inevitability.

So what do we do with this criminal element -- these drug dealers, these sociopaths, these violent offenders who haven't the slightest hankering for rehabilitation?

Mayor Schmoke would have us execute those who shoot police officers. Officer Weiner's murderer has already been executed, gunned down by police minutes after he took the officer's life. Officer Young's assailants should be executed, but most likely they won't be, since the officer appears to have had the gall to survive. Maryland's gas chamber hasn't been used for decades. Can we reasonably expect violent offenders who only try to kill their victims to receive a death sentence? I think not.

Let's try another approach. Let's try putting drug dealers and repeat offenders of violent crimes behind bars. Then let's just leave them there. Believe me, they can handle it. They'd get three square meals a day and a roof over their heads, which is more than many homeless people get. Some may feel my proposal is too harsh. I contend it may be too easy.

In 1969, I had the distinction of spending five days in the City Jail. The experience was notably unpleasant. Sharing room and board with miscreants, reprobates and cutthroats was not my cup of tea. Though I was jailed for protesting police brutality, I resolved I would never return no matter the nobility of the cause. As I left Eager Street, I noticed a sign above the gate that read, "Never again!" Amen to that, I thought.

My point is this: Anyone who has been in jail, learned firsthand of its horrors and then committed another crime that lands him back in jail simply doesn't mind being there. If today's criminals don't mind being in jail, we certainly shouldn't mind sending them there to stay. And we should also consider that felons convicted of violent crimes are not going to come out of American prisons -- virtual cesspools of violence and perversion -- less violent than they went in.

"What of the chance for rehabilitation?" you ask. Slim, at best. I had a cousin who was jailed at 16, died at 44 and spent most of the 28 years between in various state and federal prisons. I would visit him on occasion, and we would talk about chess, crime, punishment, justice, Islam, the late prison activist George Jackson and a host of other subjects. But the one thing he said that has stuck with me was his theory of rehabilitation. Looking me directly in the eye, he said, "You and I both know that a convict becomes rehabilitated more or less the day he decides to rehabilitate himself."

As if to prove his point, he continued to commit armed robberies when he was out of prison. "I could go straight if I wanted to," he said to me one day, "but there are certain things I want."

"The greatest crimes," Aristotle tells us, "are caused by surfeit, not by want." Greed and hedonism, not poverty and depression, motivate today's drug dealers and users. The sooner we get them behind bars where they belong, the safer our society will be for its James Youngs, its Ira Weiners and the rest of us.

Gregory P. Kane writes from Baltimore.

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