Criminals think they're invisible

January 30, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Thirty years after legislators passed laws making mandatory gun sentences, criminals in Baltimore stuff weapons in their waistbands like most people put car keys in their pockets.

They celebrate the New Year with a hail of gunfire, leaving shells scattered across blighted neighborhoods. They are not afraid of the law against using handguns. Street violence is a part of life.

That's what a new program called Operation Safe and Sound is trying to stop. The program is designed to answer the city justice system's deficiencies and make violent criminals feel the heat of the law.

Harvard criminologist David Kennedy who created the program said for years criminals have relied on the ever-grinding machine of the city's beleagured court system. The offenders figure there are too many cases for anyone to take notice of one man from East Baltimore with a sawed-off shotgun. They think they are "anonymous," as Kennedy puts it.

Now Kennedy, police, federal and state prosecutors, federal agencies and probation agents are have identified about 4,000 members of the city's 300 drug gangs, believing they are responsible for more than 60 percent of the city's homicides.

When violence breaks out in a certain neighborhood, they figure out who is causing it, who their girlfriends are, where their guns come from, video-tape their drug deals and arm undercover officers with microphones to tape conversations.

Prosecutors crack down on them with every available weapon: fresh charges, probation violations, stiff sentences under the federal DISARM program, forfeiture of assets, and face-to-face meetings.

"They are not going through the usual turnstyle of justice," said Kim Morton, violence coordinator for the Baltimore State's Attorneys Office, which has three prosecutors dedicated to the project. "People count on being one of five thousand or ten thousand. They count on a system that is overwhelmed and destroying it."

Since July, more than 140 have been indicted. Fifteen have been convicted and the rest are awaiting trial.

Critical to the program, which is funded mostly by private foundations, is a steely message sent to the streets that if you break the law, you will be punished. The offenders are followed through every step of the court system.

Prosecutors aim to build cases that can't be lost; that won't be dropped; that will command the attention of the corner thugs.

"When you are dealing with the streets, you don't ever write a check you can't cash," Kennedy said.

That has troubled the city justice system for years.

"We have been making promises for 30 or 40 years that we can't back up. They have no reason to be afraid," Morton said." History has proven they have no reason to be afraid."

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