Courts burdened by everything except justice

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 05, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The two of them, Scott and Yates, admit they stole the car in Woodlawn that night and, being highly brilliant thieves, managed to drive it around for an entire 80 minutes before the cops pulled them over and arrested them on Mosher Street in West Baltimore.

No big deal: On the first working day of the brand new year, they're standing in Western District Court now, before Judge Alan Lipson.

No big deal: It's precisely the 20th case of the morning on a day in which 43 criminal cases are to be heard in this courtroom and roughly 190 criminal cases are scheduled in four separate rooms at this Wabash Avenue courthouse.

No big deal: The genius Yates, big and beefy, scruffy blue jeans hanging halfway down his broad flanks, is looking around the courtroom and laughing as Judge Lipson deals with his co-defendant Scott.

In its way, of course, it does seem laughable. They call this a criminal justice system, but where's the justice, and where's the system? Of the first 19 cases yesterday morning, exactly one jail sentence is handed out -- to a woman named Brown, who enters court in blue suede knee-length boots, handcuffs and leg irons, and gets 10 days in jail for not sending her daughter to school.

The daughter, 8 years old, missed 53 of the first 79 days of school. Brown's defense? She was in prison at the time, and mistakenly assumed her sister was taking care of her daughter. But wait: Brown's got her dates mixed up. She wasn't in jail, she was in a hospital with drug problems.

In either case, Lipson sentences her to 10 days in the Baltimore City Detention Center and sends her on her way.

"Wait a minute," says an assistant state's attorney, Debbie Marcus, before Brown can leave the room. "Ms. Brown's troubles are not quite over."

She's got another trial set here, later in the day, on drug-distribution charges. Brown shakes her head, as though to shake the fuzziness out of it. Her attorney, public defender Burt Mazeroff, puts a comforting hand on her shoulder. But comfort's in short supply here.

On this first working day of the new year, when everyone comes in with fresh resolutions to make life better, it continues to be bad. Case after case is sloughed off -- not because the defendants are innocent, but because there's no place to punish them.

You were thinking, maybe, about the Maryland prison system? Its official capacity is 12,098. Its inmate population, yesterday morning, was 19,610.

So we enter the new year with familiar courtroom scenarios: possession of cocaine: a one-year prison sentence, suspended; possession of marijuana with possible intent to distribute: a two-year sentence, suspended; and a preliminary hearing on a guy charged with burning a house with a 94-year old woman inside.

The guy is wearing a Morehouse College jacket, handcuffs and leg irons, and this grin on his face. Who knows why? Maybe he's heard the familiar routine in all the city's district courts: cases stetted, nol prossed, the system sloughing its shoulders on relatively small stuff in order to find time for big stuff; defendants given probation when they should be going to prison, if only the prisons had room.

And this is why, yesterday morning, there were the two car-stealing geniuses, Scott and Yates. Scott, hair standing on edge as though he's just had an electric shock, rotates his neck. Yates keeps glancing around and laughing to someone in the audience.

Scott's got trouble. He's currently out on probation on a cocaine charge. Judge Lipson shuffles through some papers. Yates turns and laughs. At whom, it's clear: the young woman who's smiling back, and not the woman near her whose car he and Scott stole, who isn't laughing at all.

"I need to think about the sentencing on this," says Lipson, and tells Scott and Yates to take a seat.

In fact, they take a walk. They're out in the hallway when the woman with the stolen car walks past, and they laugh sarcastically and wave to her. She and her husband turn away.

It's just too disheartening to behold: these two kids thumbing their nose at a system of justice; the victims walking away feeling cheated; the system choking to death.

And another year is upon us, and nobody should think it's about to get any better.

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