Jessamy still playing risky political game

Election politics: Facing re-election, prosecutor courts danger in attacking O'Malley.

January 18, 2002

BALTIMORE STATE'S Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is right about one thing.

The city's early disposition court -- hated by judges, sabotaged by criminals -- is a failed experiment that doesn't justify its $4.7 million annual cost.

But it's a failure for which she shares at least partial blame, as one of the key players in the criminal justice system.

Moreover, the court is something the Maryland legislature wished for and funded.

Thus, when Ms. Jessamy attacked Mayor Martin O'Malley for the concept's lack of success Tuesday, she was also criticizing its legislative godmother, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman. It was no surprise when the powerful senator then singed Ms. Jessamy's ears with a tirade of her own.

Important lesson for Ms. Jessamy: In politics, unvarnished truth-telling seldom pays off. And this debate is all about politics -- for Ms. Jessamy, who is seeking re-election this year; for Mayor O'Malley, who may be angling to run for governor; and for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who wants to make her potential rival look as bad as possible.

When Margaret Burns recently left the lieutenant governor's office to handle Ms. Jessamy's public relations, players in election-year politics took notice. (Ms. Burns is the wife of Sun editorial writer Michael K. Burns.) After Ms. Jessamy's performance in Annapolis this week, the conspiracy theorists -- however wrong they may be -- believe Ms. Burns was brought in to do a job on Mayor O'Malley.

It's difficult to see much upside for Ms. Jessamy in a fight with the mayor. Mr. O'Malley won't take this lying down, and he has proved time and again that his public relations wile far outstrips Ms. Jessamy's.

More important, the early disposition principle is sound. It works in many other cities, including New York.

It has failed in Baltimore only because the whole criminal justice machinery here is a constant tug -of -war among judges, prosecutors and police. Defendants and their lawyers know that and use the paralysis to their advantage. Ms. Jessamy would find a lot more political mileage in working more cooperatively with the other players than she will pointing fingers. But all too often, blame and defensiveness are Ms. Jessamy's weapons, rather than taking responsibility and working with others to get things done.

Without question, part of Ms. Jessamy's frustration stems from the fact that her office is grossly underfunded, even as many less important agencies swim in money.

Even if she wanted to -- or knew how to -- make the office work efficiently and effectively, she wouldn't have the money to do it.

That's not fair, and legislators should work to address her funding needs. But she seems to naively think that manna from Annapolis would rain on her office if the early disposition court were to suddenly disappear. Won't happen. And blasting away at the mayor in front of legislators is the last way for Ms. Jessamy to win friends. Unfortunately, it looks as though she has allowed herself to get entangled in a ruthless, much bigger political game, where risks to her career far outweigh potential gains.

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