BALTIMORE is starting this Christmas season the way it ended the last one -- with an average of one killing a day.
After an encouraging 30 percent dip in the spring and summer, homicides are soaring again. It is likely the toll will exceed 300 for the 10th consecutive year, reaffirming Baltimore's rank as one of America's most lethal cities. This at a time when the nationwide homicide rate continues a dramatic decrease.
In February, The Sun launched an editorial crusade to stop this bloodletting. In more than two dozen editorials, we pinpointed problems and outlined solutions.
"Killers are getting away with murder," we concluded in the two-page opening editorial. "The system is so swamped it has lost its ability to treat killings as the No. 1 priority."
Following up on news articles, we showed how courts were freeing killers because trials had been frivolously postponed so long that they violated the suspects' constitutional rights.
We analyzed well-meaning but wrongheaded changes that had decimated the police homicide squad, creating tensions with prosecutors and making murder trials difficult to win.
We chronicled the overall breakdown of the criminal justice system and a paralysis caused by disorganization, case backlogs and preventable jail crowding.
Taking up the cause
We zeroed in on Baltimore's social pathology, including a narcotics problem so severe one out of eight adults is addicted to heroin or cocaine.
In its editorials, The Sun prescribed remedies. Our suggestions spawned reforms:
The Circuit Court reduced spurious postponements of felony cases by 32 percent, making it more difficult for killers to get away with murder.
The State's Attorney's Office took over charging from police in four districts. This enabled prosecutors to charge more accurately and screen out feeble cases that were clogging courts. The practice is to be extended to all nine districts next year.
After years of misguided opposition by judges, an empty court room at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center was finally utilized. That contributed to a 36-percent reduction in pretrial incarceration for trivial offenses.
Better winnowing of charges erased dangerous, chronic overcrowding at Central Booking. For the first time in years, the lock-up is operating under capacity, saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
Efforts were begun to link the various criminal-justice agencies by computer. Unfortunately their computers are still unable to talk to one another.
In our editorial opening salvo, we urged Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to lead "the crusade against murders and guns.
"They must see to it that the malfunctioning criminal justice system is repaired," we wrote. "It is time to stop the bloodshed and bring the killers to trial."
Sadly, those three top officials failed to overcome their political or personal antagonisms and provide the kind of inspirational leadership we had hoped for.
Governor Glendening delegated to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend his leadership role in the voluntary Criminal Justice Coordinating Council that convened the various agencies to consider reforms. Mayor Schmoke and Chief Judge Bell chose not to become active participants.
Judge Bell's refusal was grounded in his desire to safeguard the judiciary's independence from intervention by politicians. He let it be known that he thought assessments of Baltimore's criminal-justice crisis were overdramatized.
In the end, his recalcitrance backfired.
In decisions unique in Maryland's long history, the Senate and House of Delegates abandoned strict separation of powers, freezing $17.8 million from the budgets of courts and other criminal justice agencies until Judge Bell submitted a comprehensive plan to overhaul Baltimore City's troubled court system.
Worse was yet to come.
After Judge Bell provided his plan Oct. 1, legislators deemed it devoid of timetables and specific corrective measures. Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the two budget chairs, informed the chief judge that half of the funds would be withheld until January 2000, when Mr. Bell is to submit another status report on Baltimore reforms.
Action is imperative
The unprecedented ultimatum is a hopeful sign. Legislators recognize the urgency of Baltimore's violence crisis and are willing to press for effective corrective action .
The legislative resolve comes at a critical time. With Martin O'Malley about to become Baltimore's mayor, far-reaching changes are in store for the Police Department. Mr. O'Malley, a lawyer and former prosecutor, campaigned on a zero-tolerance platform and will be an anti-crime activist. His job will be easier if he can count on legislative allies in Annapolis.
Mr. O'Malley's main campaign pledge was to rid the city of the worst open-air drug markets. Such a crackdown could have a profound impact on gun-related violence, which often occurs near those trouble spots.