Speed alone won't cure what ails city justice

This Just In...

March 13, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

NORMAN PARSON went to jail for stealing two candy bars from a CVS pharmacy in Baltimore. He stood before a judge again the other day -- tall and bony in a yellow jail jumpsuit, looking older than his 51 years and certainly older than the other defendants around him. His eyes and ears seemed to be failing him, because Norman Parson could not quite see the hand of opportunity nor hear the voice of mercy.

"Do you have a drug problem, sir?" the judge, Ben C. Clyburn of the District Court of Baltimore, asked from 20 feet away.

"Yes," Parson said.

"Would you like to get some treatment?"

"I'd like to be sent over to DOC," Norman Parson said.

This meant he'd like to be transferred from the Central Booking and Intake Center, his domicile since Feb. 23, to a Maryland Division of Correction facility nearby. Parson had made a fast-track deal with the state's attorney -- a guilty plea on the candy bars in return for a 90-day jail sentence -- and apparently he wanted to do the time in an institution of choice. Perhaps the DOC's food is better than CBIC's. Perhaps his incarcerated friends have a chess club. It was hard to tell why Parson made this request of Clyburn. He never explained.

"Theft '99," the judge said. "Theft '98, theft '98 . . ."

Clyburn stopped there, but could have gone on with Parson's criminal record: Assault conviction in 1997, theft conviction in 1996, theft conviction in 1993. On the docket notes, someone wrote "etc." after that.

Ole Norman has been a bother for years.

"The man tells me he has a drug problem, I'd like to try and get him some help," Clyburn said.

But the judge's time and choices were limited.

The cases before him are on an accelerated docket and they're supposed to be resolved as quickly as possible. This is how a new 24-7 court at CBIC, proposed by Mayor Martin O'Malley, likely would operate. At 250 new cases a day, some estimates have judges spending no more than two minutes on each. There isn't much time for social work.

Clyburn can't refer Parson to one of the city's successful Drug Courts because the assault conviction on his record disqualifies him. Even so, the Drug Courts have waiting lists in the hundreds now and not enough funds for additional treatment slots. The Baltimore Circuit Court's Drug Treatment Court stopped taking new offenders in January.

In some sense, almost every court in Baltimore should be a drug court, with ready referral to treatment programs and intense supervision. Official estimates put the number of drug addicts in the city at between 55,000 and 60,000 (with 30,000 in Baltimore County and 25,000 in Anne Arundel County).

City police are increasing the number of arrests, and to avoid clogging the courts with "minor" offenders, like Norman Parson, the mayor wants their cases resolved at CBIC within 24 hours. That's fine, in concept, but when judges like Clyburn perform triage in justice's emergency wards, they need to be able to refer drug addicts to treatment -- and right away.

A year from now, the city's Community Court is expected to go into operation in an old bank building on Gay Street. The idea is holistic: To fast-track minor cases (prostitution, shoplifting, vandalism, disorderly conduct, panhandling), exact some community service from offenders, and offer them a chance to change their lives. In addition to a judge and the usual court staff, Community Court will have a nurse and social workers, constituting a one-stop shop: prosecution, punishment, help.

This approach was long overdue. It's too bad Community Court, established with private donations and backed by state funds, can't open tomorrow. It's where Norman Parson could have been taken.

Instead, he was on the docket in the CBIC courtroom, the O'Malley Court, before Ben Clyburn.

And the judge seemed to have some hope for the man. He wanted to do something besides keep Parson in jail until May. But what?

Aging addicts are the most recalcitrant, and here was a 51-year-old man who had been bopping through justice's revolving door for years, committing mostly petty crimes related to his addiction.

So the judge offered this deal -- one year in jail with all but 14 days suspended, provided that Parson be on supervised probation with drug screening and treatment.

Clyburn offered this quickly. The assistant public defender explained it to Parson. Parson, standing in the jumpsuit, again said, "I'd like to be sent to DOC."

In the rear of the courtroom, another defendant, a young woman in ankle chains, quietly gasped, "No."

The judge repeated the offer. Parson shook his head and sat down. He took the straight time. He will live off the public tab for 90 days, without drug treatment.

Norman Parson left us with the impression of a man locked in The Life, with no interest in getting out of it.

In that respect, he's not a good example of the greater reality. It turns out that many addicts in Baltimore, especially the younger ones who get arrested, want to leave The Life. They grow tired of it, and they get tired of being tired.

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