Hoping to improve city quality of life

Pigtown: Jennifer Etheridge is responsible for prosecuting minor crimes as part of a pilot program in this Southwest Baltimore area.

April 22, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Holding a slice of pepperoni pizza eaten nearly to the crust, the prosecutor stopped chewing, leaned forward and listened intently as the woman with a ponytail began to tearfully speak of her years as a drug-using prostitute.

They were at a community task force meeting called to brainstorm ideas on dealing with prostitution on Baltimore streets. For Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Etheridge, the discussion underscored how best to prosecute such a nuisance crime.

"I guess listening to her kind of validates what I go for in court," Etheridge said of prostitution cases. "I almost always will go for community service and drug and alcohol screening and counseling. Jail is not going to help them."

Funded by a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to the state's attorney's office, Etheridge's job is to prosecute quality-of-life and nuisance crimes for a pilot program in Southwest Baltimore's Washington Village/Pigtown community.

Aggressively prosecuting minor offenses -- often ignored in the pursuit of more serious crimes -- supports neighborhood stability and could keep minor problems from escalating into larger ones, Etheridge says.

Part of the program's payoff is requiring most violators -- who typically get community service penalties -- to serve their punishment in Washington Village/Pigtown doing tasks such as picking up trash, sweeping streets or planting trees.

There are similar, federally funded programs in Denver and Portland, Ore., but the one here is considered unusual for forcing those convicted, and not sent to jail, to perform their service in the area where they were arrested or given a citation.

"It is my strong belief that you give back to the community you harmed," said Etheridge, who is prosecuting crimes from loitering to public urination to panhandling under this program.

"You know, it is these kinds of crimes that move people to the verge of moving out of a community," said Terry Smith, a resident of the community and public safety adviser for its Neighborhood Planning Council. "It can be frustrating. But people are starting to know about this program and the community is falling in love with this."

The 18-month program started in October and it is too early to determine its success, Etheridge said. Mayor Martin O'Malley gave it credibility this month when he showcased it to an impressed visiting British dignitary during a city tour.

Etheridge has prosecuted 157 quality-of-life crimes from the Washington Village/Pigtown neighborhood. Among the cases, 37 have been for open containers of alcohol, 28 for shoplifting, 22 for drug dealing and 14 for prostitution.

Lt. Jerry Van Der Meulen, of the Police Department's Southern District, expects Etheridge to get busier now that officers know a prosecutor is assigned to handle such cases.

Van Der Meulen acknowledged that before this program, officers didn't concentrate as heavily on making arrests or writing citations for such minor crimes because they aren't always aggressively or immediately prosecuted.

"Now that we have a specific prosecutor assigned to them, the officers believe there is going to be some concrete results if they make these arrests," Van Der Meulen said. "I think this will help the neighborhood."

Washington Village/Pigtown is between Hollins Market and the Carroll-Camden Industrial Park and is in eyeshot of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The area is troubled by drug dealing along Washington Boulevard and prostitution on tight streets off that main corridor but has enough concerned residents to make up one of the city's more influential neighborhood public safety groups.

The original name, Pigtown, took hold in the 1800s when pigs were released to run through Ostend and Cross streets to slaughterhouses in South Baltimore. In more recent years, as urban renewal took hold, the city began calling the area Washington Village.

After conducting eight public safety meetings around the city early last year, the state's attorney's office chose Washington Village/Pigtown for the pilot program because of its racial and economic diversity and prevalence of nuisance problems.

Etheridge has a personal stake in seeing the program work. The seven-year veteran of the state's attorney's office, whose most recent assignment was in the general felony division, lives in Fells Point and is president of her homeowners' association and of the Preservation Society of Federal Hill and Fells Point.

She asked State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy for her current assignment and wrote the grant proposal for the funding. The grant pays Etheridge's and Smith's salaries and those of a few support staffers at the University of Maryland helping to market the program with forums and materials to educate the community.

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