Residents call for justice system reform

Problems center on effective prosecution and rehabilitation, they tell officials


Annapolis and Anne Arundel County have a significant crime problem. On that, residents and criminal justice officials agree.

But they disagree on where and how the justice system is breaking down.

Annapolis-area residents grilled local officials over perceived failures in the county's criminal justice system Wednesday night at a panel discussion in Eastport, arguing that the system fails to prosecute and rehabilitate criminals effectively.

"When they break into a house, when they break into a car ... when they really commit a crime, why aren't they punished?" an Eastport resident said. "The police do, in my estimation, a very good job. They respond quickly. But I don't have faith in the judicial system when there's a real crime."

Some residents expressed consternation at soft sentences and convicted criminals' return to the streets, and they advocated a firm three-strikes policy. Others called for better treatment and rehabilitation programs as part of or instead of prison time.

"I go to the Circuit and the District [courts]. I've been in the courtroom where people have been handed sentences I felt that were too lenient and I felt were too much. To me, it's up to the opinion of the judge," said Jackie Douglas, a case manager who has worked in the Anne Arundel prison system for 16 years. "Treatment is what's needed."

The discussion began with a hypothetical case study of an arrest on drug possession and paraphernalia charges. Annapolis Police Chief Joseph S. Johnson; Dennis Conti, the Housing Authority's interim executive director; District Administrative Judge James W. Dryden; State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee; and Public Defender Brian Denton discussed their offices' roles in the apprehension and prosecution of suspected criminals.

During the presentation, friction developed between officials. Weathersbee criticized the appeals process and local Circuit Court judges who overturn or soften sentences for convicted criminals.

"Somewhere along the way, the court has to say, `Enough is enough,'" he said.

Dryden countered many cases do lead to jail time.

"Do any of you have any idea of how many people you think are locked up right now at the Jennifer Road and Ordnance Road [detention] facilities?" he said. "Is it 400, 500?"

"Not as many as should be," a resident interjected.

Dryden continued: "To suggest that we don't lock anybody up at District Court or the Circuit ... there are about 1,300 people who might beg to differ. Whether or not we lock up enough, that's always a subject of dispute. Obviously there are people here who think that we should lock up more people for longer periods of time, and you can go to certain other community groups or interest groups who feel exactly the opposite. That's why it's such fun being a judge."

Linda Deming, executive director of the nonprofit Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center, said that in her work with maximum-security inmates she consistently encounters repeat offenders serving their second, third or fourth prison sentences.

She argued that the critical failure of the system is its inability to rehabilitate convicts, even after lengthy prison sentences.

"What they're saying is that transitioning back into society, that there's something missing there," she said. "So that what happens is they get back out on the street, there aren't the resources there to help them. And they all acknowledge, `We're falling back into the same old patterns that bring us right back here again.'"

Deming called for increased pressure on the legislature to provide stronger rehabilitation and readjustment programs in the county.

"Recidivism is high, and we're paying the price for these men going back in over and over and over again, as well as for the violent crimes that are committed when they're out," she said.

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