Scandalous silence must be broken

Where are the heroes? Criminal justice leaders duck responsibility for fixing mangled system.

An Editorial

February 18, 2001

EVERY DAY brings new evidence of the breakdown of Maryland's criminal justice system.

Nothing short of a fundamental overhaul will do when the court system in the state's biggest city moves from one paralysis to another, the probation machinery is broken and criminals walk free even after committing heinous crimes.

Two years ago in an editorial called "Getting Away with Murder," we urged top public officials to end this officially sanctioned miscarriage of justice. Our repeated appeals fell on deaf ears.

Last Sunday, we renewed this call for action.

And to what avail?

There has been no response from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has the power to make things happen.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is in charge of the state's criminal-justice portfolio, also has been mute.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has shown no concern about the broken-down system that violates victims' and suspects' constitutional rights every day.

Maryland legislators, who otherwise are quick to grab any opportunity for publicity, have miraculously lost their tongues.

At least the bit players in this tragedy - Mayor Martin O'Malley, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris - are talking. But even if they could agree on a course of action - which they have been unable to do - their powers are limited. The criminal justice system essentially depends on the state's decisions and funding.

In last Sunday's editorial, "Justice breakdown demands anger, action," we urged Sun readers to express their outrage to key officials and send us copies of their letters and e-mail messages. Following are edited excerpts:

Dear Governor Glendening and Chief Judge Bell:

As a Baltimore City resident, my future is in your hands. This city will live or die depending on choices you make. Please recognize that this city is facing a crisis that transcends personal enmity or political differences. The mayor's obvious rudeness, Ms. Jessamy's hurt feelings - these things are incidental and irrelevant. We are in a crisis. It is within your power to help us. Whether five years from now Baltimore is a vibrant, healthy community or a decaying ruin with no residential life will depend on the choices you make and the courage and vision you're willing to show.

Every day, ordinary citizens of Baltimore fight to maintain a foothold in once-beautiful neighborhoods where the specter of rampant crime threatens everyone.

I live on the edge of Canton - a neighborhood that's supposedly the future of Baltimore. But last week my elderly neighbor was robbed in her home, prostitutes routinely work out of an abandoned parking lot in the middle of a residential neighborhood and teen-age drug dealers patrol up and down Eastern Avenue.

I'm willing to put up with this for a while because I love the city, but not forever. Something dramatic has to change and it has to include both the police department and the courts. If the crisis of crime in the city can't be fixed, all the new buildings and development monies in the world won't save this city.

I ask you, Governor Glendening and Chief Judge Bell, to demand some accountability of Ms. Jessamy's office. If the Sun articles about the longstanding problems with discovery and the incompetence in that office are correct, your offices are ultimately responsible for allowing the situation to continue for so long. The city can be brought back to life, but not without your commitment and leadership. -- Mary MacDonald, Baltimore

Dear Governor Glendening:

I am writing in regard to The Sun's editorial on the breakdown in the Maryland criminal justice system. My feelings of sadness and disappointment are overwhelming. Sadness is for the state of our society, especially impoverished urban society where drugs and lawlessness overcome decency, education and optimism. Disappointment is for the lack of leadership shown by you and the others identified in the editorial.

I was shocked, quite frankly, to read of the mistrust, unprofessionalism, lack of teamwork and lack of civil decency described in the editorial. If the administrative and judicial branches can't work together to fight the incredible challenges of lawlessness caused by drugs, then all hope for our society is lost.

You have less than two years left in your administration. I challenge you to take personal leadership in addressing the specific issues of disarray present in Baltimore's criminal justice system. You have the authority and the resources - will you take the responsibility? -- James J. Cullen, Reisterstown

Ms. Jessamy:

After reading all the articles in The Sun over the last few weeks, and particularly Sunday's page-long editorial, I have felt it important to write and express what I believe to be the opinion of many city residents, perhaps even the majority view.

Certainly there are several things not in dispute:

The criminal justice system in our city, and perhaps even our state, needs careful reform.

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