Crackdown pledged on nuisance crimes

In west-side effort, city to take more cases to court

July 24, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Two new tactics are planned for the fight against public alcohol consumption and other nuisance crimes on downtown's west side, an area that city officials, police and developers are striving to remake into a vibrant neighborhood.

First, the state's attorney's office in September will begin filing charges in such cases more often. By its own admission, the office has typically declined to prosecute these relatively minor cases, frustrating police officers and freeing offenders with no punishment.

Second, the Downtown Partnership business group is organizing a "court watch" program in which members of the public and business community will attend District Court to observe and testify at nuisance-crime proceedings. Their presence is meant to show judges who hear these cases that the crimes are not "victimless."

The overall goal is to discourage activities such as public drinking or urination and disorderly conduct. And because the penalties will be community service rather than jail time, organizers say offenders will help clean up the west side.

Police officials, who have put more officers along Howard Street, say the new measures are critical for the west-side revitalization effort. The Hippodrome Theater is being overhauled for Broadway shows, and hundreds of new apartments are open or under construction.

"If they're going to make this a showcase, we have a lot of work to do yet," said Lt. John Bailey, operations commander for the Central District and commander of the substation on Howard Street.

This year, officers have responded to more than 600 reports of nuisance crimes on the west side by issuing citations or making arrests. The situation has improved since officers began bike patrols a year ago, Bailey said, but the problem is still acute even as the area remains largely free of violent crime.

"You see a lot of quality-of-life issues taking place -- illegal vendors, vandalism, people walking around with open containers," said Tom Yeager, vice president of the Downtown Partnership. "Those sorts of things give you a sense it's not a safe area."

In one case, a woman was moving into a newly renovated apartment when someone began to urinate on her car, Bailey said. She packed up and left.

The commitment to prosecute cases more vigorously should provide new deterrence, Bailey said. Now, "when we arrest them, they say, `You're wasting your time, they're going to release us when we get over there,'" he said.

Offenders still will be released in most cases, but many will be charged first and referred to the Early Resolution Court, said Page Croyder, chief of the charging division at the state's attorney's office.

If a defendant agrees to perform four hours of community service, charges will be dropped, she said. If not, the case will go to District Court, where a conviction at trial could lead to the same result. She said her office will take only cases it thinks are provable.

"We're going to see what happens with this," Croyder said. If it works, it could expand beyond downtown to areas such as Fells Point that have similar problems. Croyder said she expects few cases to reach District Court, easing the burden on prosecutors and judges.

One challenge prosecutors face when they do pursue low-level cases is judicial skepticism, Croyder said.

"Our usual response from judges is, `Why are you wasting our time with these cases? We have more serious things to attend to,'" she said.

That is where the "court watch" comes in. If a case gets to a judge, the Downtown Partnership will encourage someone from the public or business community to attend. Croyder's staff will reserve a seat, and Bailey said police will provide transportation.

Should the opportunity arise in court, the volunteers -- who will be trained in court procedures -- will testify on the effect of nuisance crimes. Volunteers will spend one morning every two months in court, Yeager said.

District Court Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews said they will be welcome.

"Technically, a judge makes the decision based on the nature of the offense and prior record, but it does matter what impact the offense has on the community," he said.

Having someone in the audience "reminds the court certain cases are not necessarily victimless crimes," he said.

Alvin J. Levi, owner of Howard Street Jewelers and president of the Market Center Merchants Association, said the cooperation among police, prosecutors and judges will make people living and shopping on the west side "that much more comfortable." And to help rejuvenate that part of town, he said, he would gladly spend some mornings in court.

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