The need for community courts

September 18, 1996|By Donald P. Hutchinson and Laurie B. Schwartz

ZERO TOLERANCE of so-called nuisance crimes has the potential to make Baltimore streets safer and its residents less fearful. Baltimore City Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier is to be commended for his new enforcement strategy to issue citations to offenders who commit what some might call ''petty crimes.'' The true impact of these crimes is far from petty.

Left unattended, relatively minor irritations contribute to the perception that a neighborhood is an unsafe breeding ground for crime. Police and researchers call this the ''broken window'' effect.

In one study, identical cars were placed in different cities. The first had no license plate and was left with the hood up. Within a day, it was stripped. The second car, completely intact, sat untouched for a week. Then, once one window was smashed, it only took hours for that car to be stripped as well.

From panhandler to mugger

Seemingly minor offenses cause fearful citizens to withdraw from affected neighborhoods. The aggressive panhandler is left unchecked. Soon muggers and robbers move in, confident that they will not be stopped be- cause potential victims are already intimidated.

Commissioner Frazier wants criminals to know that, no matter how small their crimes seem to be, they will not be ignored. State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy supports the concept, but worries, legitimately, about overcrowding the courts.

That's why the Greater Baltimore Committee and Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, two organizations devoted to business vitality, are working with police and justice authorities to create a community court.

Streamlined booking

Nuisance offenders would be arrested and taken directly to the holding facility of the community court. A streamlined, misdemeanor-only booking process would keep police off the street for less than an hour with each offender. A judge would hear the case within 24 hours and sentence the guilty to community service in the area where they committed their crimes. Criminals return to the streets immediately, but wearing community-service vests and under court supervision.

Such a process would increase the community's sense of safety and its confidence in the justice system. Police would have more reason to make arrests. Citizens would see criminals making positive contributions to the neighborhoods they recently affronted.

Criminals with social problems such as drug addiction, mental illness, HIV exposure and homelessness would be helped, too, to clean up their lives.

A Baltimore Community Court would be modeled on a similar one in New York called the Mid-Town Manhattan Community Court. It handles misdemeanors only -- vandalism, graffiti, aggressive panhandling, illegal street vending and prostitution.

Visible retribution

The community court ensures that conviction will result in punishment. It provides swift justice, visible retribution and exploits the ''moment of crisis'' in offenders' lives to channel them into the social-service system, where they can receive help with problems that may be at the root of their criminal behavior.

The creation of a community court in Baltimore is still several months away. But we believe the message from Commissioner Frazier to those who undermine the safety of communities with ''petty'' criminality is the right one to send.

Anticipate an even stronger message and better outcomes when the city begins to implement swift justice and visible retribution with a community court.

Donald P. Hutchinson is president of the Greater Baltimore Committee; Laurie B. Schwartz is President of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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