Judge airs frustrations with drug offenders

November 12, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Baltimore City Circuit Judge David Mitchell sat on the panel and uttered -- on this day of media-bashing -- seeming heresy.

"You have to be sure the media are available to grasp what you do," Mitchell told the gathering at the symposium on sentencing sponsored by the American Judicature Society in San Diego. "The media have a responsibility to educate the public. If you are fair and honest with them, they're going to reciprocate."

As if he were determined to drag symposium participants kicking and screaming back to reality, Mitchell continued to be a gadfly, chastising those who thought the main problems with sentences were judges.

"We're focusing on the judiciary as if it is the cause of the problem," Mitchell noted. "The judiciary doesn't build prisons or decide who's going to be released."

Nor do judges make prison policies. Back in Baltimore a week after the sentencing symposium had ended, Mitchell talked over lunch about Sunday's airing of "60 Minutes," in which a jailed drug dealer told interviewers how being in prison made it easier for him to deal drugs. It seems life behind prison walls gave the dealer access to South American drug dealers with connections and a telephone line to the outside world.

The drug crisis is one of two issues that Mitchell feels the symposium participants didn't come to grips with. The second is juvenile crime. Mitchell, a Juvenile Court judge for 11 years, estimates that 70 percent of cases in the juvenile system are drug-related. The judge admitted he didn't know the exact figures for the adult courts, but he's convinced that "most property crimes are drug-related."

Mitchell would like to see more community supervision of drug offenders.

"I don't think we need to change the penalty structure," Mitchell said. "I want teeth in the sentencing. If I sentence someone to drug treatment, I want there to be supervision to provide the certainty of drug treatment."

But Mitchell's realistic. With about 50,000 addicts on Baltimore's streets, drug courts and drug treatment will have only a limited effect. When asked what the odds were that even half of Baltimore's addicts will ever even see drug court, the judge answered candidly "slim to none. The resources [for treatment and the drug court] are quite finite."

Whether or not to legalize or decriminalize drugs is a question Mitchell feels he can't address as a judge.

"That's social policy," Mitchell said, better left to social planners.

Or perhaps politicians, who surely know that America's love of drugs is strangling our courts and contributing to crime but who haven't shown the guts yet to mention either legalizing or decriminalizing drugs. (Mayor Kurt Schmoke being the notable exception.) Our political honchos won't even consider decriminalizing drugs and requiring that addicts use their drugs in a place far from the rest of us. Give the public more of the same, the politicians figure, hoping we'll be too stupid to demand a change.

Drug legalization is something Mitchell feels judges shouldn't comment on. But withholding comment shouldn't be the rule for judges, he says.

"[We] can't continue to walk around and say, 'No comment,' " Mitchell observed. "There are certain things on which we can comment."

For Mitchell, one of those things is juvenile crime, for which he feels there are few preventive measures. He especially laments the lack of recreational facilities for Baltimore City youth. Such facilities are needed so that youngsters will have an outlet when their hormones begin an inevitable surge.

"The Police Athletic League has done a fantastic job" in providing recreational facilities for youth, Mitchell said. "But that's in lieu of the department of recreation, not as an adjunct to it."

Mitchell hinted that the key to curbing juvenile crime ultimately lies in the home, not in the recreational centers.

"Our children's behavior is a gross reflection of our own, and it's not a reflection we always want to see," Mitchell declared. If a child sees parents using booze or drugs, it's more likely the child will. Loose parental sexual behavior, Mitchell believes, leads to loose child sexual behavior "to the extreme."

Unfortunately, we have no laws preventing the excruciatingly stupid from either voting or breeding. Parenting is a hard job even when the parents have it on the ball. Adding irresponsible parents to the mix is a prescription for social disaster.

"We really haven't gotten a handle on youth crime the way we have on adult crime," Mitchell concluded. Considering some parents today are more committed to dysfunction than child rearing, it's doubtful we ever will.

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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