Community Court is just common sense

December 03, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

The incoming mayor of Baltimore should revive a common-sense idea that the outgoing mayor of Baltimore scrapped. If city officials really want to end chronic homelessness in Baltimore, then Sheila Dixon should reopen discussions about Community Court. This is a great idea that was set for takeoff as the new millennium approached. It never got a chance to work. It would not have been a panacea - what is? - but it certainly would have made a dent in the homelessness and other human miseries that continue to diminish the quality of life here.

Community Court was one of those New York-Giuliani things that the Greater Baltimore Committee, along with other organizations and civic leaders, wanted to bring to downtown Baltimore in the late 1990s. It was modeled after the Midtown Manhattan Community Court, which combines swift justice with an array of social services to help low-level repeat offenders break their cycle of crime and stay off the streets.

"An effective strategy for reducing or eliminating nuisance crimes would substantially strengthen both downtown's attractiveness and business climate," the GBC argued. Community Court "provides strong and effective support for community policing, encouraging enforcement efforts against minor offenses and providing an array of problem-solving tools [with] constructive, service-oriented sentences for addicts, prostitutes and the homeless."

Community Court was designed for panhandlers, dope fiends, hookers, vagrants and vandals - men and women who need help, not more jail time.

This was a holistic approach to misdemeanor nuisance crimes - prompt judicial triage seven days a week, with the root causes of bad behavior identified, addressed and maybe even remedied. Imagine that!

"In short," the GBC said, "[Community Court] brings the essence of justice to ground level, where it can be visible and effective." The committee that worked on Baltimore's Community Court wanted to see offenders brought before a judge within 24 hours of arrest, then referred to an appropriate in-house service - housing counselor, nurse, social worker, mental health professional or lab tech to perform blood screenings for communicable diseases. A judge would come up with not so much a sentence but a plan for rehabilitation and restitution.

By autumn 1997, things were moving along nicely. With a $275,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, the GBC Foundation bought a building at 33 S. Gay St. to house the new court.

In 1998, the General Assembly came up with $740,000 for a Community Court staff. After several more months of tinkering with the concept -after the state bureaucracy mulled it over and worked it over - the court seemed to be ready to go again. The GBC had raised $1.6 million in private funds for capital costs and $970,000 for operations.

What happened?

Martin O'Malley became mayor, with his own ideas about how to deal with quality-of-life crimes.

Early in his tenure in City Hall, O'Malley pushed for Early Disposition Court - remember his sarcastic stick-figure drawings? - in an effort to streamline justice as his New York-influenced police department launched zero-tolerance initiatives on city streets. Plans for the Community Court were scrapped. There was not room for both ED and CC.

And while O'Malley stated - in an essay in The Sun in 2001, for instance - that Community Court services had been rolled into Early Disposition Court, that hasn't happened to the extent necessary for a comprehensive assault on the root problems. ED and CC are not the same thing. Early Disposition Court - now called Early Resolution Court - is an arraignment court that offers community service and a drug diversion program. It does not offer the array of immediate social services Baltimore's most chronically troubled population needs.

Dixon's move to the mayor's chair presents a chance to look at this again. It should be part of any long-term plan to end persistent homelessness. And taxpayers should support it as a common-sense way to get the best return - lower recidivism, less nuisance crime, a healthier citizenry - on our contributions to the criminal justice system.

Whatever it's called, whoever gets the credit, the Community Court remains a good idea delayed. It ought to be revived.

On a roll

Tip of the week: Scrounge up 12 bucks ($7 for students) and go see Urinetown, The Musical at Towson University's Center for the Arts, now through Saturday. This is a smart, hip and hilarious undergraduate production, featuring students with real star power. Look for the theater with the toilet paper festooned above the doors.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

Men and women with criminal records may obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by contacting Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or at dan.rodricks @baltsun.com. Hear Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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