Baltimore City

Bernstein's year of changes and challenges

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.

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.

"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."

Gertrude Hack, president of the Allendale Community Association in West Baltimore, recalls a meeting with him last year. She called him "personable," responsive and a good listener, who cleared up a private neighborhood issue within a week.

Sharon Guida echoed the sentiment from North Baltimore's Charles Village, where a Johns Hopkins researcher was killed in 2010 by a man with a long arrest record, shocking the community. During his campaign, Bernstein used the young man's death to illustrate what was wrong with the current prosecution model.

"He's doing an excellent job … my hat's off to him, because I was very skeptical," Guida said.

He's also created a major investigations unit, which models itself on the longer-term work done by federal investigators. It's a lofty project that will take some time to assess.

"You can't expect that to spring up overnight," said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. "One of the challenges is to develop prosecutors who have a longer-term perspective on the cases" — a difficult thing in a busy state's attorney's office, which handles thousands of cases per year.

Page Croyder, a retired prosecutor and criminal justice blogger, said changing the office culture of "this is how we do things" will be Bernstein's biggest challenge. She raised concerns that he's starting fresh with too many things and people, rather than tapping those "with deep experience from within the system" for guidance.

But Bernstein said he's already pleased by the "buy-in" from people in the office. "You always worry that the prosecutors may be so ingrained in the way they're doing things" that they won't take well to change, he said. "People are really excited, there's a real kind of energy that wasn't here before. I think that we've built great relationships."

He plans to strengthen those in the coming year, and create new ones. He's focusing on increasing domestic violence convictions by teaching prosecutors to proceed with cases even after a witness drops out and on proving that his major investigations unit is worthwhile. And he says he doesn't have any regrets about his choice to leave the private sector.

"I feel like I'm part of a positive change, every day. How can you not like that?" he said. "Yes, there's a lot of stress associated with it, and yes it's hard sometimes. You're subject to public scrutiny and criticism, but I have a thick skin. I don't sweat that stuff."

Bernstein's first year by the numbers:

$238,000 — Bernstein's salary

42,000 — The number of 2011 criminal cases filed in Baltimore through October.

14,000 — The number of circuit court cases closed through November 2011, a 17 percent increase over the number of cases closed in 2010.

1,900 — The number of times a Baltimore officer failed to appear in court in 2011, through October. That's an 11 percent drop compared with the same period in 2010, when 2,100 officers failed to appear.

377 — The number of employees in the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office (208 prosecutors, including Bernstein; and 169 staff members)

224 — The number of new personal computers purchased since Bernstein took over.

118 — The average sentence in months given out for crimes involving guns and violence, up 9 percent from the previous year, when the average was 108 months.

71 — The percentage of homicide cases that ended in conviction in 2011, up from 64 percent in 2010.

51 — The number of people who have left the office since Bernstein took over (3 deputy state's attorneys, 25 assistant state's attorneys and 23 staff members).

42 — The number of people hired since Bernstein took over (3 deputy state's attorneys, 19 assistant state's attorneys and 20 staff members).

0 — The percentage difference in the overall felony conviction rate under Bernstein in 2011 compared to Jessamy in 2010. (Bernstein and Jessamy each had a 63 percent conviction rate, though Bernstein's was trending upward in the second half of the year, his office says.)

SOURCE: Baltimore State's Attorney's Office