CRIME PAYS in Baltimore City.
Every day, unrepentant criminals appear before judges for sentencing. But many are not sent to jail, as they would be in surrounding counties. Too often, they receive repeated probation until they do something so heinous that their behavior can no longer be ignored.
And even if a probationer is sent to jail, many sentences for drug offenses and armed robberies now run concurrently.
Within one month in April, for example, a 42-year-old career dope dealer was rearrested twice while free on a suspended sentence. He is now serving simultaneous sentences for three drug distribution convictions.
"You get two crimes for the price of one in Baltimore -- or maybe even three for the price of two," a prison official observes.
The city courts' leniency is extraordinary. Felony sentences imposed by Baltimore City judges are consistently the lightest in Maryland's 24 jurisdictions -- not only for drug offenses, but for violence and property crimes as well. (See www.gov.state.md.us/sentencing for further information.)
Incredibly, more than 77 percent of the felony penalties handed out in the city fall short of the sentencing ranges the state advises Circuit Court judges to use.
An astounding 85 percent of drug offenders -- including big-time heroin and cocaine traffickers -- are sentenced to less than the recommended minimum penalty. In Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties -- other jurisdictions notorious for lenient drug penalties -- less than 50 percent of drug offenders are sentenced to less than the recommended minimums.
Yet no one has shown the courage to do anything about this insidious problem, which has eroded the certainty of meaningful punishment for all but the most serious crimes.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and the 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly have known for years about Maryland's geographic inequalities in sentencing. They have ignored the discrepancies because solutions are expensive and would require a fundamental restructuring of Maryland's criminal justice system.
Similarly, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who oversees the court system, has ignored the issue. Never mind that glaring sentencing disparities have serious implications in terms of due process and the constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
Sentencing disparities within Maryland are so drastic that a crime that nets a 25-year prison sentence on the conservative Eastern Shore may lead to a mere five-year sentence in the city.
But even a comparison between two adjoining urban jurisdictions, the city and Baltimore County, provides a startling illustration of different penalties for the same crime.
In Baltimore County, a nonviolent criminal who has had a prior drug felony conviction often gets 10 years' imprisonment without parole for possession, if intent to distribute hard drugs can be shown.
The amount of drugs makes no difference. It could be as little as one or two $5 bags of cocaine or heroin -- or a vial of PCP.
In neighboring Baltimore City, possession of small amounts of drugs is routinely plea-bargained to probation alone. Even in bigger drug busts, a 10-year sentence may shrink to two years behind bars, followed by three years of probation.
To some extent, these remarkable disparities are explained by the local prosecutors' differing views of crime and punishment. Baltimore County's hard-line state's attorney, Sandra A. Connor, for example, routinely seeks the death penalty in murder cases. Her city counterpart, Patricia C. Jessamy, seldom does.
The main reason for the startling sentence variations, though, is prosaically pragmatic. As leading jurists, including city Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, have acknowledged, Baltimore's light sentences are driven by the state's need to quickly move huge volumes of cases through a technologically antiquated and badly overburdened city court system, which handles more than one-third of Maryland's criminal cases.
In that inundated court system, plea bargaining is seen as a vital shortcut that keeps things from falling apart altogether.
Plea bargaining "functions like a market," District Judge John M. Glynn has written. Huge "discounts" are offered to the accused to plead guilty and not insist on costly and time-consuming trials.
"The public does not like the sentences which result," Judge Glynn has noted. But the backlogged court system "would collapse if everyone took it seriously and actually showed up in court demanding justice."
The tradeoff has had disastrous consequences.
Public confidence in predictable punishment has eroded. Because the whole process is seen as futile, witnesses, including police officers, often do not show up for hearings, leading to the dismissal of charges. When this happens, victims feel betrayed and hurt, and our justice system is further undermined.