In Baltimore, progress by decrees

How a consent decree already moved Baltimore forward

Good thing Baltimore and the U.S. Justice Department will finish a consent decree on policing before Inauguration Day. With Alabama's Jeff Sessions likely to become U.S. attorney general, there's no guarantee he would stay on the path established by his predecessor. Sessions is not a fan of consent decrees.

"One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees," Sessions wrote in the foreword to a think-tank paper in 2008. "Consent decrees ... constitute an end run around the democratic process." And, Sessions added, their remedies are costly to taxpayers.

Others argue that consent decrees, in which disputing parties consent to a settlement that a court orders, then supervises, amount to social engineering.

But consent decrees are often the only remedy for violations of civil rights, such as discrimination in housing — its own brand of social engineering.

Baltimore's most famous and important one was a partial consent decree reached after residents of public housing filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city and its housing authority, alleging that those agencies had engaged in racial discrimination that left thousands of poor, black families stuck in the worst of living conditions. A federal judge ruled that officials had violated fair-housing laws by not taking a regional approach to housing to give those families opportunities to live outside poverty-stricken, segregated neighborhoods.

Under the consent decree, Baltimore's old and decrepit public high-rises were demolished in the 1990s and redeveloped as mixed-income communities. The city and federal government agreed to provide hundreds of units for public housing residents in mostly white, middle-class areas of the city and suburbs. And that work has gone on quietly, and effectively, for years.

It would not have happened if not for the consent decree, and the litigation that continued after it.

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Regarding Sunday's column on the chronic problem of prostitutes on the residential streets of Brooklyn: Why don't we designate a section of abandoned Baltimore, blocks from where anybody lives or works, as the only place in the city where hookers are allowed to pick up their customers without fear of arrest? We could call it Trampsterdam.

If you don't like that idea, then what would it take to revive the Baltimore Community Court that Martin O'Malley scrapped when he became mayor in 1999?

(Pardon me if you've read about this here before; it's a topic I pull out each time we have a change of administrations in Baltimore.)

Fashioned after a program established in Manhattan back when Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York City (and still rational), the Baltimore Community Court would have provided swift justice plus on-site social services to help low-level, nonviolent offenders stay out of jail and off the streets. Drug addicts, prostitutes, shoplifters would get help instead of jail sentences. The court would operate seven days a week, offering a holistic approach to misdemeanor nuisance crimes, targeting the root causes of bad behavior. There would be a judge, of course, and court personnel, but also treatment counselors, job counselors, nurses, social workers and a mental health professional on duty.

This new court was all set to go, with state and private funding and a downtown building acquired by the Greater Baltimore Committee, when O'Malley became mayor and nixed the plan. The plan still exists somewhere, and it deserves a new look.

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You heard the one about the Dundalk guy who shot up his house and got into a standoff with Baltimore County police, allegedly because his wife took a bite from his grilled cheese sandwich? Funny, right? Good material for a columnist quip.

Wrong. An argument over grilled cheese might be amusing on "Family Guy," but not in real life. Guns — and the Dundalk guy had 15 of them, according to police — aren't funny. Domestic violence isn't funny. I'll pass on the grilled cheese.

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From the latest "Roughly Speaking" podcast, now online:

Rep. Elijah Cummings says he attended at least 100 meetings with President Barack Obama during Obama's two terms in the White House. Each time, the Maryland Democrat says, no matter how many people were present and engaged in the discussion, he always concluded that Obama was the smartest person in the room.

"One of my first meetings with the president, the Democrats were so upset about something," Cummings said. "I can't remember exactly what it was, but they were very upset, saying, 'Mr. President, why can't you say something about this? We want you to say it this way.' And [Obama] said something I will never forget. He said, 'I am very careful about every syllable I say, because I can say one sentence and it can change people's lives all over the world.'"

Indeed, the 44th president has always been thoughtful, deliberative and measured in his statements.

Come Jan. 20, we'll switch to impulsive, ill-tempered and nasty in his tweets.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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