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Bernstein's year of changes and challenges

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

January 09, 2012|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

The room is packed, except for a portion of one row, which has been reserved for Bernstein, his spokesman and the reporter who's shadowing him. While most of his work is done at the circuit courthouses downtown, he says he tries to visit the district courts, where most misdemeanors are heard, whenever he can to assess his staff's work and let them know he's watching.

"It's easy to feel isolated," he says of prosecutors there. He proudly claims to know the names and faces of every employee.

Kurt E. Nachtman, who recently left the prosecutor's office to go into private practice, said in an interview that Bernstein's best quality is his hands-on, accessible nature.

"It was, frankly, a breath of fresh air for all of us," said Nachtman, who spent five years in the office. "He differentiated himself by [being] approachable."

The best example of that is in Bernstein's relationship with Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who famously — and publicly — sparred with Jessamy at nearly every turn.

"My personal communication ability with him on critical issues is much easier and much more open, mostly because he doesn't feel like I'm blaming him and I don't feel like he's blaming me," Bealefeld said.

"I don't want people to conclude that it's this gigantic lovefest," Bealefeld added. "He has a lot of concerns about what I do, and I have a lot of concerns about what he does," but they handle them professionally, without embarrassing one another in the media.

In district court that December day, Bernstein exchanges pleasantries with a public defender he's known for years. He tells her that the joke at his prior office is that "it took five lawyers to replace me." He leans over to the reporter and points out a sheriff's deputy, a petite, young woman with her hair pulled back. "She looks like she's 10," he says with a chuckle.

Assistant State's Attorney Thomas Akras is handling the docket. Dozens of case files line the table in front of him, and others are piled on the floor at his feet. In all, Akras will field about 65 cases, a third of which will "pray a jury trial," which means they'll ask to be heard in circuit court, knowing that there's a possibility the case will get dropped along the way.

"That's the way they manipulate the system," Bernstein said. On his legislative agenda this year is a bill that would reduce the penalty for possessing less than 14 grams of marijuana to fewer than 90 days in jail, so those defendants couldn't ask to move their cases to circuit court, which requires a stiffer sentence possibility.

Such legislation would reduce the circuit court docket by about 1,500 cases a year, Bernstein said.

Several of his initiatives have to do with weeding out bad cases. New charging guidelines require stronger cases from police and a more realistic approach from prosecutors, who are to charge the most serious, "readily provable" offense supported by the evidence and stick to it, even when plea bargaining.

And a new "citizen review unit" evaluates complaints filed by city residents soon after they're registered to remove those that don't belong in court. Of the 1,800 cases reviewed since June, most — 56 percent — were disposed of without trial.

Bernstein notes Akras' caseload as a reason that every little bit counts, and sweeps out of the courtroom with his small entourage in tow, headed back downtown.

'Very skeptical'

Bernstein won office in the 2010 Democratic primary, which decided the race, because people said they were ready for a change, and he promised one. He promised to go after violent offenders, particularly repeat offenders, and to raise the bar for innovation in the prosecutor's office, which some said had grown stagnant.

To that end, he's rearranged his staff and brought on 42 new people to replace the 51 who left. He's given raises to roughly 30 assistant state's attorneys, who were still being paid their starting salaries after several years. And he put a training director in place to orient new prosecutors and refresh established ones, requiring that they all take a professionalism course and attend seminars to keep their skills sharp.

He's launched a "convictions integrity unit" to ensure the validity of past prosecutions, a police integrity unit to review officer conduct and, last week, a community-based prosecution model, which focuses prosecutors on particular neighborhoods. He's also visited nearly every community in the city at one time or another.

"At the time of the election, I was really a relative unknown, I had zero name recognition, and I'm not sure how many people even really knew who I was even after the election," Bernstein said, sitting at a conference table in his office. A framed photo of Joni Mitchell hangs on the wall behind him, and a coffee table/miniature pinball machine across the room.

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