When criminals were honest, nobody needed to pack a pistol


Eddie from South Baltimore, the semi-well known bookmaker, wishes to pick a fight with somebody who doesn't even have to be his own size. He wishes to match fists with those who insist on using guns. It is Eddie's belief that these peaheads are giving honest criminals a bad name.

Eddie comes to this thinking with insight based on a history of creative breaking of laws. As a young man, he flirted briefly with a profitable drug business but then found something equally lucrative but less morally bereft.

There he was, one long-ago Sunday afternoon in the parking lot behind a church, sitting behind the wheel of a brand new Cadillac.

"Did drug money buy this?" a friend inquired.

"No, no," said Eddie, appearing wounded. "I've gone straight."

"No kidding," the friend said. "What are you into now?"

"Numbers," explained Eddie.

Everything being relative, we are still dealing here with a history of several decades of skirting the various municipal laws. The numbers business was profitable for a long time. Then it went bust when the state opened up its own lottery, and so Eddie moved into other lines of work: taking horse bets and selling slightly warm jewelry.

Once, he gave a beautiful diamond ring to a young lady of his acquaintance who was marrying a close family friend. The young lady was touched.

"Only one thing about the ring," Eddie said.

"What's that?" said the young lady.

"Never wear it in Philadelphia," said Eddie.

It's a touching story, but it leads Eddie to a larger point: Never, in all these years, has he resorted to violence.

"Never," he says solemnly, "have I owned a gun. Never did I want a gun. I want somebody to tell me one reason why it is legal to sell a gun in this country."

He is standing on Patapsco Avenue, with a newspaper in his hand and the story of a 9-year-old girl at his fingertips. The girl is named Lakiya Bradford. About 8 o'clock the other night, Lakiya was walking in the 700 block of North Luzerne when a bullet hit her in the chest.

She was lucky. Unlike 6-year-old Tiffany Smith a week earlier, Lakiya survived. But the shooting of children has now become just a branch office business of the casual use of guns in this community.

"I want to know," Eddie from South Baltimore says now, "how this country justifies the sale of guns." His voice is rising through the afternoon air. "They don't do anybody any good. They only hurt people. If they just outlawed the sale of all guns, you would cut the amount of crime by incredible numbers."

Eddie comes from a different generation of criminal and a different mind set. His peers broke some rules but obeyed others. They broked the gambling laws but generally stayed away from the drug traffic. If somebody had a beef, they settled it without gunplay.

Today, we have an amazing system of criminal justice that is choking on the backlog of drug and gun cases. Everyone knows of the undermanned cops, the backed-up courts and the clogged prisons, but this is only part of it.

There were, at last count, 53,149 serious criminals under the jurisdiction of the State Division of Parole and Probation. They are required to check in with various agents, known as parole and probation officers, who come to us with certain myths attached to their personas.

They're supposedly a combination law enforcement figure and social worker for these wayward souls trying to walk the straight and narrow with their lives.

The problem is this: The 53,149 criminals are reporting to just 502 agents.

Such a ratio cannot seriously work out. In Northwest Baltimore the other day, a senior agent was complaining, "I have a caseload of 700 offenders. That's an average caseload for a senior agent. There are agents who have 1,600 offenders.

"What happens is simple. I lose people. They may be in the streets for six months before I know it, and maybe they're in trouble and maybe they're not. I have no idea what they're doing. Once a year, they call on the phone for five minutes, and that's it."

The results are easy to see: a revolving door system of criminal justice. Within a year of prison release, 11.6 percent of parolees are back in the system. Within two years, 24.8 percent. Within three years, 34.7 percent.

"I just move paper and make computer changes," the parole officer says. "I don't supervise people. I barely even see them. And the trouble is, a lot of them are very dangerous people."

They're the ones Eddie's upset about: the gun users and the drug traffickers who rotate in and out of the prisons -- and also the ones who make laws in this country. They see the crime figures going up and the justice system falling apart, and they read about the children getting shot in the street, and they are unmoved except by vote possibilities.

The gun lobby leans on them, and the hunters complain that their right to kill small animals is being taken from them, and the weapons continue to kill the guilty and the innocent at random while the politicians do nothing.

"I want to meet one of these brave guys who needs a gun," Eddie from South Baltimore says now. "I want to break his gun over his head. And then I want to meet one of these politicians who never fixes the laws. And I want to break my fist over his head."

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