With prayer and a reading of the names of the people killed already this year, the Baltimore City Council paused last night to reflect and find ways to stop the bloodshed.
The council proposed several strategies, from additional court fines to a task force on youth and alcohol, in an attempt to rescue the city from the ever-tightening grip of crime.
But the most ambitious plan by a councilman to hire additional police officers and expand the state's attorney's office never got off the ground.
Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who represents the violence-weary neighborhoods of West Baltimore, had wanted to raise the personal income tax by 2 percent to improve the criminal justice system. However, he failed to muster enough support even to introduce the bill.
"I got torpedoed," Mitchell said wryly, after only six colleagues sided with him, while five passed and another five voted against introducing the tax increase.
Instead, the council agreed on two less politically daunting ways to raise revenues for fighting crime: bail-bond fees and special court charges.
Council President Lawrence A. Bell III is appealing to state legislators to allow local courts to levy extra fines on anyone convicted of a crime. The council adopted a resolution calling for additional court fees earmarked for better policing.
"Let us have a fee that puts the burden on the culprit rather than increasing taxes for law-abiding citizens of Baltimore," Bell said. "This is a sense of restitution, maybe not to the victim, but to society."
The council proposal is patterned after one that failed in the General Assembly in 1992. That bill would have permitted courts to impose a law-enforcement fee of $50 in criminal cases and $10 for traffic violations.
Robert F. Sweeney, the retired chief judge of Maryland's District Court, said he had routinely opposed such special fees "because there were so many, and so many variations" that they could create a logistical nightmare for the courts. He also worried that added fines "would be like a bounty -- the more you lock up, the more you get."
State Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who represents the west side, attended last night's meeting in support of his cousin, Keiffer Mitchell. The delegate said he believed the Bell proposal might have a chance if the fines are clearly marked for policing.
"It's got to go to something tangible, not just the bureaucracy," he said.
The council came out squarely in support of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's plan to use bail-bond fees to set up a computer tracking system and improve the courts.
In a different anti-crime approach, Dr. Norman A. Handy Sr., a councilman who represents southern Baltimore, wants a task force to look at the impact of corner liquor stores and bars in the city's poor neighborhoods.
"The preponderance of our street pharmacists, or entrepreneurs, are high school dropouts going in and out of these liquor stores, buying these 40-ounce bottles," he said.
The somber tone began with the opening prayer of the Rev. Aggie Lee Brown, the pastor who presided over the funeral for a 3-year-old boy fatally shot in a barbershop earlier this month.
Bell dedicated the first night of the council's spring session to "all those people who lost their lives to senseless acts of violence."
His colleagues were silent as the clerk read the names of the homicide victims of the first 3 1/2 weeks of the year. All but one were men. All but five were black. And 11 were 21 years old and younger.
"People are crying for public safety," Clarence Mitchell said afterward. "This violence is just horrendous."
Pub Date: 1/28/97