Critics overlook strides in city's crime fighting

March 20, 2001|By Martin O'Malley

LAST YEAR, murders in Baltimore fell below 300 for the first time since the 1980s. Our city experienced the largest homicide reduction in the nation during the second half of 2000. Violent crime dropped by 15 percent compared to 1999.

But for all our progress, justice often is slow and uncertain in Baltimore. Too many violent criminals are allowed to go free after they have been arrested. We are not yet effectively using community service and court-ordered drug treatment, with escalating sanctions for noncompliance, as a means to quickly address nonviolent crimes. And we have yet to restore public faith in our criminal justice system.

The problems facing Baltimore's criminal justice system are well-documented, well-publicized and very real. And if we do not move more quickly, these flaws threaten to derail last year's progress. But while much has been written about controversies and personalities, very little has been said about the real and measurable progress our criminal justice actually is making.

After a year of hard-won reforms, signs of progress are beginning to emerge. Increased dollars for drug treatment and better policing clearly are part of the equation. But just as importantly, our criminal justice system finally appears to be placing greater priority on violent gun cases - giving more serious crimes more serious attention.

After years of lobbying, pushing and debating, the Early Disposition Court opened for business in August. During that first month, early-disposition guilty pleas and instances in which prosecutors declined to charge suspects combined to sift out 18 percent of arrests within 48 hours - quickly concluding minor, nonviolent cases that would otherwise bog down the rest of the caseload.

In January, a full 31 percent of arrests were disposed of within 48 hours. In that month, 1,318 minor cases were quickly removed from our clogged criminal justice system, freeing time and resources to improve the prosecution of more serious offenses - especially those involving guns.

During the first three months of 2000, the state's attorney's Firearms Investigation Violence Enforcement (FIVE) unit obtained 29 gun convictions, including 10 in which the judge imposed the five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

In the last three months of 2000, the FIVE Unit gained 45 convictions, including 26 with five-year sentences. That is a 55 percent improvement in convictions.

The new Gun Court within the District Court produced similar improvements. Gun Court convictions climbed from just 17 in its first quarter of operation to 39 convictions in the last quarter of 2000, a 129 percent increase.

Meanwhile, through Project Disarm, referrals of the most serious gun cases for enhanced federal prosecution climbed to a record high of 207 last year compared with just 123 the year before.

The Community Court initiative is now being rolled into the Early Disposition Court. This welcome addition of human services to the criminal justice system will allow judges to sentence or divert more minor offenders to immediate drug treatment, community service or other services, reducing recidivism and allowing criminal dockets to spend more time on more serious cases.

Finally, let's not forget that the reinvigorated Baltimore City Police Department continues to improve its clearance rate for homicides and shootings - both of which rose sharply last year, with the shooting clearance rate nearly doubling. The odds of apprehending the most violent repeat offenders on our streets have greatly improved. If we are going to keep them off the streets, our courts and prosecutors will have to continue to improve their performance, as well.

Progress does not mean perfection. There is still plenty of room for improvement. But a great deal has been achieved in just one year.

Maybe all of these things together help explain why Baltimore was featured last month in U.S. News & World Report as the one bright spot among U.S. cities last year - where crime actually went down, not up. Maybe all of these things had something to do with Baltimore having the sharpest decline in murders of any major city in America for the second half of last year. And maybe, just maybe, we are finally moving forward.

We have a long way to go, but for the first time in years a sense of priorities is returning to the Baltimore City's criminal justice system.

It's easy to be cynical. It's easy to be critical. But somebody needs to tell the cynics and the critics that there really is reason for hope, and it's time to get to work.

Martin O'Malley is mayor of Baltimore.

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