Arrested development

October 04, 2005

When Kim Kramer-Zamenski calls the police about suspected drug dealers hanging out in her Southeast Baltimore neighborhood, she expects them to make an arrest. If it's not for selling or possessing drugs, then a loitering charge is fine with her. "We want them gone," says the Baltimore Highland Community Association president. "The only way you're going to get rid of them is to continue to have them arrested and have them prosecuted."

That's a reasonable expectation for a community leader, but one that often conflicts with the crush of business in the criminal justice system. Consider this statistic: The office of Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy declines to prosecute about a third of criminal cases brought by the police. The majority involve arrests for nuisance crimes such as loitering, public drinking and disorderly conduct. Prosecutors say police don't properly charge a defendant or the case lacks the legal grounds to win in court. This is not new; in fact, it has become a routine part of business -- and it needs to end.

In the absence of a ban on arrests for nuisance crimes, there has to be a better strategy to deal with these problems. Police officers have to be held accountable not only for the arrests they make but also for the outcome of their cases. Random audits of arrests would identify problems and underscore the importance of initial police work in conviction and clearance rates. Prosecutors must realize that citizens aren't going to stop calling police and asking them to clear corners and lock up people for these petty crimes.

Arresting an individual for any crime is a serious matter that carries consequences beyond arrest. But arrests that result in convictions can lead to the kinds of intelligence and criminal cases that will help clear a corner for more than a night or two.

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