Balto. groups decry plan to crack down on nuisance crime

July 25, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Advocates for the homeless fear a crackdown on nuisance crimes on downtown Baltimore's west side could worsen a "never-ending cycle" of homelessness. The city's state's attorney's office, police and the business community support a crackdown on nuisance crimes, such as public intoxication.

J. Peter Sabonis, executive director of the nonprofit Homeless Persons Representation Project, and Jeff Singer, chief executive of Healthcare for the Homeless, put their concerns about the crackdown - which is to include more arrests - in a letter to State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

Sabonis contends that making such arrests will create a police record for offenders that will further impede them from finding a job and, as a result, make it more likely that they will become or remain homeless.

Starting in September, the state's attorney's office intends to file charges more often with the expectation that offenders will be channeled into community service.

The new approach has been championed by the Downtown Partnership, a business group that says "aggressive" panhandling, public urination and similar so-called nuisance crimes must stop for the west-side revitalization to succeed.

The partnership's vice president, Tom Yeager, said he understands advocates' concerns and hopes nuisance crimes can be made civil violations. Under such a system, offenders would have a choice between a fine and community service. But, that type of change is likely to take time, Yeager said, and something has to be done now.

Sabonis also argued that nonprofit groups such as his should participate in a new court watch program being set up to monitor nuisance cases. The program is designed to be part of the overall enforcement emphasis.

Under the plan, interested members of the public and business community will monitor the nuisance crime court proceedings and, if allowed, testify on the impact of nuisance crimes.

Sabonis said that if advocates for the homeless also participated, they could inform the court about mitigating circumstances, such as the lack of public bathrooms.

"Let's look at the complete community," he said.

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