Trash plan hits snag in Baltimore

Few offenders being sent to work in DPW cleanup program

May 29, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Department of Public Works has been counting on hundreds of offenders convicted of minor crimes to bolster its efforts to clean up alleys and vacant lots, but so far only a few have wound up on city trash crews.

Under an agreement last year between Mayor Martin O'Malley's office and the Baltimore circuit and district courts, judges were to begin this year sentencing nonviolent criminals to a community service stint that could include the city's Department of Public Works. That department's Bureau of Solid Waste planned to use the community service referrals to target the trash-strewn lots and alleys.

Joseph A. Kolodziejski, chief of the bureau, said supervisors at the city's four sanitation yards have been trained to escort scores of community service workers each day to and from work sites. But in recent months, Kolodziejski has received only a handful of extra workers.

"I'm prepared to handle up to 200 a day," he said. "We're hoping the courts can expedite things. It would be a big savings to the city."

Kolodziejski said that on a few days in the past few months, he has received as many as 10 offenders who were referred for community service. But many days, he has none, which requires him to reassign city workers from regular duties to clean the lots and alleys.

O'Malley, who has proposed deep cuts to the Public Works Department in his budget, sent a letter last month to Circuit Court Judge David B. Mitchell, chairman of the Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice, which is overseeing reforms of the city's courts.

"We must get this program moving!" O'Malley wrote. "A concerted effort needs to take place to have minor offenders serve a sentence and clean our city. ... These referrals are a key component of our reorganization plan at the Bureau of Solid Waste."

Mitchell said judges have not been avoiding the agreement to send more convicts to community service. "This court is trying to make as many referrals as we can," he said. "We keep reminding them [the judges] that this is an option for them. But we can't order it in every case."

Not every convict is eligible, he said. For example, any offender with a violent-crime conviction, past or present, does not qualify for community service.

In addition, judges can sentence offenders to community service, but not to a specific program; that assignment is a function of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Nevertheless, Mitchell forwarded electronic copies of the letter last week to all Circuit Court judges, and O'Malley's office sent copies to District Court judges. A meeting to work out issues related to community service is being arranged but has not yet been scheduled.

Most judges favor the idea because it can help unclog the court system and provide an alternative to sentencing someone to jail. But some judges say court-savvy defendants request jury trials - which delay their cases - rather than accept a plea bargain that could result in a community service sentence.

"The District Court has long supported the community service program and believes it is a valuable sentencing alternative that also serves to benefit the community," said District Judge Barbara Baer Waxman, who oversees the Early Disposition Court, established last year to handle minor cases expeditiously. "I am confident that District Court judges consider community service in most sentences that don't involve incarceration."

Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller said it may take a little more time for judges, who only recently learned of the extra community service slots available in DPW, to begin using the option more regularly.

"I think the judges ... welcome the additional community service slots," Heller said. "I think it's going to make easier the disposition of certain cases."

Peter Saar, director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, said he has been working with judges to remind them of the 200 slots available for defendants to work with DPW. "I can't tell the courts to sentence people to community service," he said. "I can only show them that we're sitting here with our arms wide open, ready, willing and able for these people to come. All you have to do is send us some bodies."

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