State's attorney: Whoever wins, the status quo has lost

Our view: Whoever is declared the winner in Baltimore's tight state's attorney's race will need to quickly demonstrate that the office's performance is improving

September 15, 2010

Declaring a winner in the Baltimore state's attorney's race may be impossible until all the absentee ballots are counted, but one clear conclusion emerges from little known defense attorney Gregg Bernstein's stunning challenge to 15-year incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy: When it comes to prosecuting criminals in the city, there is a widespread and intense dissatisfaction with the status quo. If Mr. Bernstein hangs on for a victory, he will be under intense scrutiny to show that a new approach in the office can put more dangerous criminals behind bars for longer sentences. And if Ms. Jessamy prevails on the absentee ballot count — unlikely, but theoretically possible — she will need to quickly demonstrate that she has learned a lesson from this election and can change the way she does business.

Mr. Bernstein, who is white, has worked during this campaign to reach out to Baltimore's African-American community and to neighborhoods far from his home in Roland Park. He needs to work even harder at that now that the election is over and to follow Ms. Jessamy's lead in civic engagement. Even if he reduces the office's focus on prevention and treatment programs to devote more resources to the core responsibility of prosecution, he needs to lend highly visible support to those causes — and work to ensure all those who donated so generously to his campaign do the same.

Mr. Bernstein's promise to become more directly engaged in the day-to-day business of prosecution, and even to take on some cases personally, would give him the chance to show the city where his priorities lie and to begin the difficult task of winning the trust of city jurors, who so often view the efforts of law enforcement with skepticism. He needs to choose the first case he prosecutes carefully, and he'd better win.

If Ms. Jessamy wins, she needs to show that her priority is successfully prosecuting criminals, not avoiding blame for the system's failings. She needs to show that she can work well with others. Having a sour relationship with every police commissioner she's ever worked with is starting to look like a pattern. She needs to recognize that Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III briefly put up a lawn sign endorsing Mr. Bernstein for a reason. She also needs to mend fences with Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake — Ms. Jessamy's explanation that she has a terrible relationship with the mayor because her budget was cut during an unprecedented fiscal crisis and because she didn't get invited to a press conference comes across as petulant and juvenile.

Most of all, what either Ms. Jessamy or Mr. Bernstein needs to do is to show results. We know in minute detail every statistic about how police are handling crime, but very little about the effectiveness of our prosecutions. Ms. Jessamy says she doesn't believe in tracking conviction rates. This is hogwash. The next state's attorney needs to show the city concrete, verifiable data about the job he or she is doing — and proof that the office's performance is improving. If that doesn't happen, the discontent voters demonstrated Tuesday will come back with a vengeance in the election of 2014.

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