Ifill: A dispiriting end to the state's attorney's race

September 13, 2010|By Sherrilyn Ifill

There have been few things more dispiriting in Baltimore's public life than the last weeks of the race for state's attorney between incumbent Pat Jessamy and challenger Gregg Bernstein. Ms. Jessamy has held the position since 1995, surviving early battles with former Mayor Martin O'Malley and outlasting a series of controversial police chiefs. This time around many influential Baltimoreans decided to support Mr. Bernstein, a well-respected and skilled criminal defense attorney with no public or elective office experience but with a well-financed campaign and strong engagement with many voters.

We couldn't help but be aware — as we always are in politics — that Mr. Bernstein is white and Ms. Jessamy is black. These things are never insignificant in electoral contests — whether the election is for prosecutor or president. But this racial subtext seems to have provided a welcome opportunity to distract too many Baltimoreans from a careful assessment of what's really at issue in this contest.

Case in point has been the penchant of commentators and residents to engraft onto the state's attorney's office all of our understandable anxiety and anger about violent crime in Baltimore. During the past 10 years, Baltimore's crime problem has been variously blamed on illegal drugs, gangs, zero-tolerance policing, the closing of recreation centers for youth, bad parenting, the abandonment of community policing, corruption in the police department, our education system, Baltimore jurors' skeptical view of police testimony, inadequate witness protection, the "stop snitchin'" culture, light sentences for convicted criminals, and prison culture. And those are of just some of the reasons offered for entrenched crime in the city.

Never before has Baltimore's crime problem been blamed on just one factor. But during the past month, lawyers, politicians and commentators have suggested that the state's attorney's office is solely responsible for the failures of Baltimore's criminal justice system. Without question, the work of the prosecutor's office is a key factor in protecting the public from violent criminals.

But if Gregg Bernstein is elected, he will inherit the same Baltimore jurors that Ms. Jessamy's prosecutors try to convince every day to convict criminal defendants. He'll have to work with a police department that still has some officers — however few — who are corrupt or insufficiently trained to enable them offer credible and consistent testimony in criminal cases. He'll face young people exposed too early to drugs and gangs, who drop out of school and who have diminished opportunities for gainful employment in a tough economy. He'll face communities struggling to reintegrate ex-offenders who need drug treatment, jobs and housing.

It may make us feel better to always point the finger at the state's attorney, but only a holistic approach to crime and punishment will transform this city. It's to Ms. Jessamy's credit that she's recognized this in the prevention and treatment policies she's promoted in the state's attorney's office.

It was not long ago that Baltimoreans saw progress in fighting crime in our city. The drop in the city's murder rate during the past two years was regarded as a source of hope months ago. Ironically, these decreases were not credited to the work of Ms. Jessamy, who certainly should have shared in the credit lavished on the mayor and the police commissioner.

Then Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn was killed in Station North this summer. It was the kind of senseless, brutal murder that takes your breath away in its tragic implications. The kind that makes you think that maybe things aren't getting better.

But the figures belie that feeling. This is not to say that our current murder rate is acceptable. Young, mostly black men (and women) are killed senselessly every week in Baltimore. The unspoken back story is that many of these men were involved in the drug trade. If we're honest, it is this reality that has allowed too many of us to accept the steady march of these murders — even at reduced levels compared to five years ago — as just another brief story in the daily newspaper.

Mr. Pitcairn's murder hit closer to home for many Baltimoreans. He was a student with tremendous promise. He was talking on the phone his mother. He wasn't a criminal or a drug addict. And he was white. It's complicated and tough to admit, but it would be foolish to deny that Mr. Pitcairn's murder struck a chord for many Baltimoreans because of who he was, in all its dimensions. The murder in the same neighborhood, during the same week of a black male witness to a different murder received scant attention until black residents began to protest the disparate interest in the two murders.

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