Pressure builds for Jessamy

More money means higher expectations

February 06, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy appeared on a local talk show recently, she compared her understaffed office to an army without enough weapons, fighting a losing battle against violent criminals.

Last week, she received more firepower. The state rushed her nearly $800,000 of grant funds to hire prosecutors to go after gun-wielding criminals. The city has promised up to $2.3 million more.

The question now is whether she can win the war.

All eyes will be on Jessamy in coming months to see whether additional staff members help stop the city's revolving-door justice. Administration officials say she will not receive more state money to prosecute gun crimes in the coming fiscal year if improvements are not made in the way cases are handled. The Police Department has begun tracking the outcome of every gun arrest.

The receipt of these long-awaited funds places enormous pressure on Jessamy to show progress in the prosecution and punishment of criminals.

"She's got to produce. The name of the game is production," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Tax Committee. "What you've been saying all along is you need the money for [additional staff]. Well, here is the money for the people. Accomplish."

Hoffman added: "I want a law-abiding city where criminals get arrested and sent away to prison, not gunned down by rivals. That's all. Do what your job description says."

Last Sunday, The Sun published an analysis of the fates of the 1,660 people charged with violent handgun crimes over a two-yearperiod. The analysis showed that one-third of the people were set free without a trial when prosecutors decided not to take their cases to court.

Of those convicted, most -- 63 percent -- received prison terms of less than the mandatory five years in hundreds of attempted murders, carjackings, armed robberies and homicides. The light sentences allowed the offenders to return swiftly to the streets.

Although much of the violence is concentrated in Baltimore's poor, drug-infested neighborhoods, the whole city suffers when violent crime continues unabated and unpunished, officials said, because violent crime scares off prospective investors and leads residents to flee to safer suburbs.

"The city is an innocent victim, because 12,000 people leave this city a year, and clearly crime is one of the major reasons why people are leaving," said U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "I'm complaining because my city is not safe."

Jessamy says she is ready to prove her office can win the war against criminals.

"I am a person with a dogged determination, with the strength of steel," she said.

With the new money, she said she aims to funnel all the gun cases to one unit, known as the Firearms Violence Enforcement Unit. Six prosecutors will be added to that unit and two more will be brought on to target violent juveniles.

With gun cases centralized, Jessamy said, she will be better able to keep track of them and ensure that those convicted are receiving tough sentences.

She said the money also will allow her to hire eight additional attorneys to take over the charging function from police to improve the quality of cases. Police used to decide which charges to place against defendants, and often prosecutors would not review a case for months, only to learn the evidence was not strong enough to stand up in court.

"We intend to revamp the whole thing," Jessamy said. "This is a wonderful opportunity."

She said she still needs more money. A request for $6.2 million is pending before the state legislature. In particular, she said she needs more support staff, such as investigators and law clerks.

She conducted a review of prosecutors' offices around the country. Boston has 130 attorneys, 30 investigators and 15 law clerks to handle the city's 59,000 arrests. According to her survey, Philadelphia has 259 prosecutors, 80 investigators and 68 law clerks to handle 67,000 arrests. Baltimore has 164 attorneys, nine investigators and seven law clerks to handle 86,000 arrests.

Jessamy points out, however, that her office is only one part of the criminal justice system. "I can't do everyone else's things, but I can take care of mine," she said.

Scrutiny of other agencies in the court system -- judges, public defenders -- will continue as lawmakers fight to bring down homicide numbers.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who campaigned on a law-and-order platform, has made funding contingent upon fundamental changes in the court system. He wants half of all cases disposed of within 24 hours after arrest. That would require the cooperation of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and jail officials.

On Thursday, he told a group of business leaders that he is determined to turn around the city justice system and will take on any agency that does not cooperate.

"We are either going to be singing `Kumbaya' around one unified plan," O'Malley said, "or I'm going to war with any institution or any person that is obsessed with protecting their bridge over the River Kwai."

O'Malley said complaints about lack of funds from city justice agencies no longer will be an explanation for a broken system.

"All of those things are obstacles to overcome, not excuses," O'Malley said.

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