Bernstein's year of changes and challenges

New city state's attorney has made progress but acknowledges he still has far to go

  • "I thought that it was very important to get out into the community, so people could see who I was and make their own judgments for better or worse," said Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein.
"I thought that it was very important to get out into the… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
January 09, 2012|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

A year ago, Gregg Bernstein was a week into his new role as Baltimore's state's attorney, having narrowly unseated the incumbent, who held the job for 15 years.

He was a relative unknown, and so self-confident he sometimes bordered on cocky. His friends in private practice, which he left behind to take on the lesser-paying public post, worried he would hate it. On some level, so did he.

The prosecutors' offices, split between two halves of the ancient circuit courthouse downtown, were crumbling and rat-infested. Their technology capabilities appeared to have stalled early this century. And some staff members were so skeptical of Bernstein, their attitudes toward him were almost hostile. Roughly 13 percent of the previous employees have since left — some were forced out.

Today, he's still self-confident, and the offices are still bad. But he seems to be embracing his position and the challenge it presents. He spent the last year chipping away at his anonymity and his campaign promises, quietly overhauling operations and implementing new initiatives based on a best practices report commissioned by the Greater Baltimore Committee, which is made up of civic and business leaders.

Still, his first year was marked by growing pains.

He was the subject of a death threat by an attorney (who pleaded insanity) and several public protests by residents angry with choices he made in bringing charges. And he made an embarrassing newbie mistake when he believed a wise-cracking private email to his staff, analyzing his first trial as a state's attorney, would not be leaked to media.

That trial, of three police officers, also left him with a personal conviction rate — a favorite topic of his campaign — of just 66 percent: Two of the defendants were found guilty of misconduct, while a third was acquitted. He's now preparing for his second trial, scheduled to begin later this month.

In a lengthy interview that spanned the better part of a business day last month, Bernstein outlined his achievements and his goals for 2012.

He has done many of things he said he would — bringing in new computers and BlackBerrys by the dozens, improving relations with the police department, and moving cases through the legal process more quickly than his predecessor. His office closed 17 percent more cases last year than Patricia Jessamy's did in 2010, he said, and secured longer average sentences on violent gun cases.

The homicide conviction rate is also up, to 71 percent from 64 percent, but Bernstein still has a long way to go in improving the felony conviction rate. It was on the rise during the second half of 2011, his spokesman said, but closed at 63 percent for the year — the same rate Jessamy had in 2010. Jessamy declined to comment for this article.

Police are still failing to appear for court cases at alarming rates under Bernstein for a variety of reasons, including forgetfulness or vacation interference (it happened 1,900 times last year), though some improvement has been made simply because prosecutors are now calling officers on their cellphones to issue reminders. And domestic violence cases are still being dropped too frequently because victims back away from their statements.

Programs are under way to address both areas, Bernstein said.

And though he talked a lot about transparency during his campaign, the prosecutor's office in some ways seems more closed off than it has in recent years. Bernstein, 56, restricts his staff from speaking to media, preferring to control the message himself, either directly or through his spokesman — a model also used by Maryland's federal prosecutor. And little data have been distributed publicly about his performance, though Bernstein said that will change in the coming year.

Curtis S. Anderson, chairman of the city's House of Delegates contingent, supported Jessamy in the past but says that Bernstein appears to be on a good path.

"Some of the changes that he's made, you won't know what their effectiveness is probably for another year," he said. "His ideas are good, I just think that I would reserve any grade" until more time has passed.

Personal touch

On a cold, clear December morning, Bernstein's driver — a police officer on "executive protection" duty — pulls a white Ford Explorer up to the curb outside the Borgerding district courthouse on Wabash Avenue, and the city's top prosecutor hops out of the back seat, carrying his signature cup of coffee.

A team of people meets him at the entrance and ushers him into a waiting elevator, which he rides to the second floor. He walks toward Courtroom 6, where Judge Miriam B. Hutchins is on the bench.

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