Even a `slow' day in court illustrates Baltimore's problems

February 06, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

YESTERDAY, THERE were 33 cases scheduled in the Western District courtroom of Baltimore's Wabash District Court. There is a term for such a preposterously heavy caseload, and prosecutor Tim Murray pronounced it during a morning break.

"Slow," he said. "A slow day. Usually, this courtroom's overflowing."

It was slow enough that Judge Keith Mathews paused to ask a defendant named Marshall Hendricks, also known as Lamont Atkinson, "Have you ever worked for a living?"

Hendricks, aka Atkinson, would be sentenced to two years of probation for street-corner heroin dealing along Edmondson Avenue. He is 22 and said he had a couple of children. His voice seemed to come up from his sneakers.

"Worked in a restaurant," he said.

"And this?" Mathews asked. He meant the drug dealing.

"Doing it for my kids," said Hendricks/Atkinson.

"And what are your kids going to do when you're spending 10 years in prison?"

Across the morning, it was this kind of routine courtroom business. One narcotics case, and then another and another. In the midst of them all, one case of mere disorderly conduct. The model citizen of the group, said a bailiff named Bernard Fabiszak.

None of this is the stuff of headlines, but all of it contributes to a city continuing to frighten itself to death while simultaneously speaking of a new municipal renaissance.

At his State of the City speech earlier in the week, Mayor Martin O'Malley thus mixed good news with the enduringly bad: Violent crime is at its lowest level since 1970, but the homicide pace continues. Overwhelmingly, the killing is tied to one drug trafficker bumping off another. The federal government, which called Baltimore the nation's most drug-addicted city in the mid-1990s, now notes "the second-largest reduction of drug-related emergency room admissions of any major city in America" over the past three years. Notice the careful parsing of the hopeful language. It helps that the city has opened five new drug treatment centers and doubled drug treatment funding.

But, when O'Malley walked out of City Council chambers after his speech, he quietly asked an aide, "Was I too downbeat?"

Actually, there are some pretty decent reasons for optimism: City residential property values have risen 60 percent in the past four years. There's $2 billion in new development, creating jobs and breathing new life into neighborhoods. The public schools are deep in debt and laying off administrators, but reading and math scores are rising, and graduation rates are up.

Down in the body of O'Malley's speech, in a phrase nearly overlooked, was a line about the University of Maryland downtown campus. The phrase was this: Breaking ground for its new west-side biotech center, the medical school has "crossed Martin Luther King Boulevard."

That boulevard has been a kind of undeclared demilitarized zone, a wide swath of heavily trafficked lanes dividing the fortresslike professional schools and hospital, the new theater area, and the big housing and business developments from old, tattered, dangerous West Baltimore.

On that dismal side of the boulevard, we once had the old dinosaurs, the low-rent housing called Poe Homes and Lexington Terrace, where the median household income just a dozen years ago was not quite $5,000 a year - not including whatever business took place on the street. It was business that kept the places such as the University of Maryland from ever venturing across the boulevard, business that winds up every day in the Western District courtroom.

So now we take heart. The old high-rises are torn down, and the city is crossing previously unimagined borders, spending money and creating jobs for people hungry for them. This sounds pretty hopeful. Then comes the news out of Washington, the day after O'Malley's City Hall speech.

In its new budget, the White House released a list of 65 programs that it plans to eliminate and 63 more to cut back. Wonderful. While grandly promoting his No Child Left Behind initiative, George W. Bush calls for eliminating and downsizing more than a dozen education programs, including $34 million for guidance counselors, $30 million to combat alcohol abuse among adolescents, $18 million for a national writing project.

All this, while cities such as Baltimore are laying off hundreds of school employees.

Then, the White House says, come cuts in federal grants to local police, fire and emergency rescue departments.

"Bush's irresponsible crusade to `starve the beast,' " O'Malley declared last week. The beast being government on any level.

Not to be overlooked: The total savings from these 65 eliminated programs, and these 63 diminished programs, would add up to a piddly $4.9 billion. This, with the White House predicting a $521 billion federal deficit this year and $364 billion in 2005. This, with Bush pushing Congress to make permanent most of his tax cuts to the wealthy - which would increase the federal deficit by an additional $1.1 trillion over the next 10 years.

"Tax cuts to the wealthy," O'Malley said, "continuing with lightning speed."

And the cities such as Baltimore, patching together a school system while laying off hundreds of employees, hopefully building biotech parks where poverty once reigned, and processing 33 cases in a district court and somehow calling it "a slow day."

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