A lawyer's lonely battle to overhaul criminal justice

January 03, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

"Freedom" is sinking, and it isn't at all clear whether lawyer Frank M. Dunbaugh, try as he might to bail leaves and water from the cockpit drain, can save her.

She is a pert 23-foot sailboat, with scrapes on her sides and a waterlogged stern showing the more than 20 years Mr. Dunbaugh has piloted her around the Chesapeake. The forlorn white craft is named for his favorite word. Like the boat, the concept has been in serious disrepair, Mr. Dunbaugh would say -- but hasn't gone under quite yet.

That was never clearer than Thursday when Mr. Dunbaugh, 64, saw the release of Linda Sue Glazier, a longtime client whose two life sentences for conspiring in the murders of her adoptive parents 20 years ago were commuted by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The clemency request was the first in Maryland based on a claim of sexual and physical child abuse.

For the past 20 years, Mr. Dunbaugh has been fighting for an unpopular idea in a lock-'em-up world: the eventual abolition of prisons.

As the lone lawyer on a federal court case about the Baltimore City Detention Center, he has forced officials there to improve conditions and to find solutions to persistent overcrowding.

The voters who thrust Newt Gingrich into power in November and swept three-strikes-and-you're-out into law across the nation might call him a throwback. They might shake their heads at his "Abolish the Death Penalty" mug, and at the American Civil Liberties Union sticker on his front door in a peaceful Annapolis neighborhood.

But Mr. Dunbaugh says his ideas are the future -- and that they transcend politics. His model of criminal justice includes no criminal courts. All the judges, probation agents, clerks and lawyers who work in the criminal bureaucracy, instead, would help victims sue their offenders directly, in civil court.

Regulation of the drug trade would give players a legal alternative to settling business disputes with violence. Decriminalization would let addicts get help without confessing to a crime. Spouses, children, sisters and brothers would have standing in court to force an addicted family member into treatment.

"We should put a higher priority on the damage to the victim than on punishing the offender," Mr. Dunbaugh said in a recent interview. "The state has first crack at this person. Once they're through with them, what's for the victim to have?"

To reduce violent crime in America, he would attack its cultural underpinnings. He would take away football players' pads and helmets: "Super Bowl Sunday is the high Sabbath to violence," he said.

It's a more forgiving, preventive world, in which fewer people would be victims and fewer would be prisoners, he said. "I just truly believe it can't be any worse than the system we've got."

Critics say it's a dream world.

"I believe he exists in a very optimistic environment, which some realists might see as fantasy," said LaMont W. Flanagan, who as the state's commissioner who oversees the jail is Mr. Dunbaugh's chief adversary in the continuing jail case. "Those of vision, however, might see it as wisdom."

Mr. Dunbaugh has reason for believing in the possibility of change, and plenty of schooling in being out on a limb.

Between 1958 -- the year he started as an attorney in the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division -- and 1978 -- the year he left -- the terrain of race relations in America ruptured and has been remade. Mr. Dunbaugh was part of many of those cases, hopping small planes and storming election boards across the Deep South to protect voting rights for blacks and to enforce school desegregation orders.

As assistant counsel to a congressional committee in the late 1970s, he compiled one of the first nationwide sets of statistics that showed blacks are imprisoned at many times the rate of whites, giving rise to studies and debates that continue today.

When he first joined the civil-rights division at the Justice Department, Mr. Dunbaugh had no particular interest in the subject. "Nobody really asked me what my views were," he said. "I didn't come in as a great advocate for civil rights."

But the cases made history -- and became a career agenda for Mr. Dunbaugh.

"He is a wonderful lawyer," said Yale Law School Prof. Burke Marshall, Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights from 1961 to 1965, who supervised Mr. Dunbaugh at the Justice Department under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. "He's sort of laid back, but very precise and dogged and very good technically.

"Being a civil rights lawyer in those days was a lot of travel -- long days and long nights. The lawyers that were working for me had to deal with a hostile atmosphere, with hostile state officials, sometimes hostile federal officials."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.