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Troubling rise in homicides

ShootingsHomicideJustice SystemAnthony Batts

After five years of progress in reducing or holding virtually stable the number of homicides committed in Baltimore City, 2012 saw a disturbing rise in killings over the previous year. City officials need to ask themselves whether this is merely a statistical blip in an otherwise generally positive trend, or whether it indicates more serious problems ahead.

As of today, 215 people have been killed in the city, a 10 percent increase over this time last year. In 2011, the first year since the 1970s with fewer than 200 homicides, officials pointed to the drop as a major victory against crime and a sign that Baltimore was finally on a path to shed its image as one of America's most dangerous cities. Now that homicides appear to be rising again, the city should be looking hard at ways to preserve the gains it has made in recent years.

No one knows for certain why homicides rise in some years and fall in others. Baltimore's jump in homicides occurred during a year when statistics show that overall violent crime rates (including aggravated assaults and armed robberies) and property crimes were both on the wane.

Why killings should increase when other types of crime are falling remains something of a mystery, though there is a school of thought that suggests crime rates, like markets, rise and fall periodically in response to social forces that are difficult to quantify and often impossible to predict. Some social scientists think the state of the economy affects the crime rate, with poverty and lack of education being among the leading causes. That view is far from universal, however, and history provides little evidence of a direct relationship between rates of poverty and crime.

Other researchers point to demographics. Since most crimes are committed by young men, they argue, when the proportion of such individuals in a population goes up, crime rates will follow. Still other experts believe the propensity to commit crimes springs from complex patterns of social and familial interactions experienced early in life that exert a lasting influence. Such people will offend throughout their careers regardless of economic conditions or opportunities to engage in legitimate alternatives.

Police and prosecutors have little influence or control over such factors. What they can do is aggressively go after those suspected of the most violent offenses in order to protect future victims. Police Commissioner Anthony Batts says that many of the killings this year were driven by disputes over turf between rival drug gangs, and that in such cases it is difficult to find witnesses willing to testify in court. But others have suggested that changes in the procedures prosecutors and police use to charge suspects may have allowed many of them to avoid arrest and imprisonment, leaving them free to remain on the streets and commit more crimes.

Earlier this month, The Sun's Justin Fenton reported that Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who campaigned on a pledge to aggressively prosecute violent crime, has charged far fewer homicide cases than his predecessor, Patricia Jessamy, and that police detectives are increasingly frustrated by their inability lock up people they suspect have committed serious offenses.

Mr. Fenton detailed one case in which prosecutors originally declined to bring charges against a man accused of a 2011 fatal shooting in Bolton Hill because they felt there wasn't enough evidence to win a conviction. Prosecutors only changed their minds after he was linked to a second shooting this November that left two men dead and a woman critically injured.

Had the suspect been charged earlier, sources told Mr. Fenton, witnesses might have come forward once he was behind bars to strengthen the state's case without fear of retribution. Taking such suspects off the streets keeps them from intimidating and threatening people in the community and also denies them opportunities to commit additional crimes.

Certainly prosecutors should proceed cautiously until they are confident any case they bring is strong enough to win in court, and they must also protect the right of people who may have been falsely accused not to spend weeks or months in jail while their cases work their way through the system. But investigators often can't begin to turn up all the evidence needed to support a murder charge until after the suspect has been arrested.

Police and prosecutors say cooperation between their agencies has never been better, and it is encouraging that Mr. Bernstein recently agreed to charge five cases brought to him by Mr. Batts that detectives considered especially urgent. Keeping the most dangerous offenders off the streets should be the top priority for maintaining Baltimore's progress against homicides because lives are saved when suspected murderers are arrested and jailed before they kill again. But that can't happen unless they are charged.

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