Can another prosecutor do better in Baltimore?

City voters have to decide between veteran Jessamy and a challenger who claims he can make the city safer

August 22, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Patricia Jessamy has a tough sell: "Keep me in office. I'm experienced. I've done a good job. Violent crime is down significantly in Baltimore since I took office, and I deserve some credit for that. I send thousands of criminals to prison every year."

Gregg Bernstein, Mrs. Jessamy's challenger in the September Democratic primary, is the underdog but, in many ways, he has an easier pitch: "Pat Jessamy has been state's attorney for 15 years. If you think she's done a good enough job, then keep her. But, I say 'good enough' isn't good enough. It's time to give someone else a shot at prosecuting the criminals who ruin Baltimore for the rest of us."

The incumbent usually has many advantages — name recognition, lots of important relationships fostered over the years, accomplishments that look impressive on a website, and cash on hand for a re-election campaign.

All but the last holds for Mrs. Jessamy.

Mr. Bernstein only announced his candidacy last month, and he's the surprise of the season so far: As of last week, he had raised $217,000 in campaign contributions to Mrs. Jessamy's $46,000.

That tells you Mrs. Jessamy either wasn't expecting a challenge in 2010 — she coasted to victory four years ago — or she was supremely confident that she could ward off any challenge.

The report of Mr. Bernstein's money advantage might move Jessamy loyalists to rally in the next couple of weeks. The primary is Sept. 14, so there isn't much time for Mrs. Jessamy to catch up and get the funds she needs for advertising.

But that assumes money is important in the state's attorney's race. Mrs. Jessamy still has a big name recognition advantage.

And she has one more advantage that sounds absurd but goes something like this: "I'm just the chief prosecutor."

The rest of that goes: "I'm just one piece of the perplexing puzzle that is criminal justice in the city of Baltimore. If I can only take partial credit for the reduction in violent crime, then I can only take partial blame for its persistence, too."

Look, I'm not making excuses. I'm merely pointing out that most people who've thought about this, even from a distance, know that the state's attorney is just one player in a system that is overloaded, if not overwhelmed, and as long as Baltimore has poverty and family dysfunction, drug addiction and drug dealing, undereducated children and unemployed adults, Baltimore is going to have a serious crime problem, and there's only so much anyone can do about it.

I don't mean to say people are complacent or defeated. A lot of Baltimoreans, especially younger ones who want to make a life here, are mad as hell about the persistence of crime. A lot of us are sick of the city's international reputation for violence.

The question is, do we hold the state's attorney responsible for that?

What about the judges? What about the parole and probation systems? What about the police commissioner? And, down at its roots, what about the schools, or social services, or the juvenile justice system? What about parents who don't parent?

This is complex stuff.

Crime was, by the numbers, worse in 2006, 2002 and 1998, and in each of those years, a majority of city voters backed Patricia Jessamy. Of course, she didn't have much opposition. But many of us probably assumed she was doing the best she could within a beleaguered system.

Now it's 2010, and Baltimoreans need to ask themselves if we need more from a state's attorney besides the merely adequate.

Is what we've had for 15 years good enough?

If you've read this column over the years, you know where I stand: We should put money and effort into treating drug addiction instead of incarcerating addicts. We should be training a certain class of offenders for re-entry into society and the workforce instead of just warehousing them in prisons. We should stop building prisons.

But when it comes to violent criminals and chronic criminals — the ones who kill or injure others, the ones who keep Baltimore from becoming great — those guys need to be in prison. The state's attorney must see that that happens. The state's attorney must be, first and foremost, a tenacious advocate for public safety.

Has Pat Jessamy been that tenacious advocate, doing as good a job as can be expected of anyone, or is it time to see what the new guy can do? That is the question for Sept. 14.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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