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Crime in courts shows no sign of statistical drop


On the morning after the news about violent crime in Baltimore vanishing at the flick of a statistic, it was wonderful to drop in at the Wabash Avenue District Courthouse, where street crime comes to pay its dues, to see what peace in our time might actually look like.

And there it was, big as life:

Courtroom No. 1, Southwest District: 44 criminal cases waiting to be heard on this routine Thursday morning.

Courtroom No. 2, Northern District: 35 cases waiting to be heard.

Courtroom No. 3, the so-called Accelerated Case Docket, which is mainly for violation of probation: 80 cases.

Courtroom No. 4, Western District: 45 cases.

Courtroom No. 5, Northwest District: 51 cases.

One courtroom following another, every seat was filled with the backwash of a city that wishes poignantly to believe in its own redemption and might even invent a whole new branch of arithmetic to make it happen. There were drug abuse defendants, housebreaking defendants, assault cases, attempted murder suspects, the routine violent crime yawners that, over the past nine years, the years of crack cocaine, the years of the various Schmoke administrations, have risen 40 percent until last Wednesday when, out of the blue, the police informed us that violent crime in the city dropped over the first nine months of this year by 10 percent.

"Oh, really?" a uniformed cop was saying Thursday morning, standing in a hallway outside Western District court.

"That's what the statistics say," he was told.

"Well, let me tell you about statistics," the cop said. "They're like your income tax returns. You get 'em to do what you want 'em to do. They're like these guys who own ballclubs where they're bringing in millions, and they tell you they took a loss. They're like..."

"If crime's down," a second cop interrupted, "tell me why I couldn't even find a seat in here last week?"

He pointed to the nearest packed courtroom. A public defender walked past, overheard the conversation, and said, "You think it's crowded in there? That's just the people who aren't locked up. There's a whole other crew waiting in the lockup in the back."

Look, nobody wants to take another shot at the poor city. If the cops feel pressure to declare crime's down 10 percent, then three cheers for creative bookkeeping. The intent is to make people feel their city's safer, and start to feel better about their lives, to take a little pressure off City Hall. But let's not delude ourselves too soon.

The reality of crime in the city is as simple as this: In Northwest district the other day, there came a defendant named Allen. Do you have an attorney, he was asked. No, this Allen said, he did not. Why not? To this, there was the standard shuffling of the feet, the well-known mumbling, characteristic of such dialogue dozens of times each morning, in every courtroom, which comes down to this: Allen wished to stall his date with justice and stay on the street for a long time.

How long? Well, he was here several months back on this same case -- assault with a deadly weapon -- but did not bring an attorney at the time. So he was told to get one and come back. He did come back, a few months later, but again minus an attorney.

So this was his third appearance before a judge minus the requisite legal assistance. Such things happen by the score every day. In the courtroom now was Allen's mother-in-law, who said something about Allen having a substance abuse problem, and could the assault charge be suspended if Allen agreed to go for counseling?

At this, Allen looked at the mother-in-law and openly laughed. They could go to counseling together, said the mother-in-law. Allen sneered. He looked about 19 years old, but there was talk that he had a child at home. The sneer was aimed at his mother-in-law, and yet it wasn't.

In him, you saw the contempt that arrives every day in these courts, that the overwhelmed police confront while generations of leaders fiddle with numbers and think it will make a difference. It's a contempt that comes from being dealt out of the game, and figuring it out real early, and spending a lifetime acting out accordingly.

The American system divides vividly into haves and have-nots. At midweek, the newspaper tells us, "Jobs outlook is bleaker in Maryland." This is startling news to maybe four people in the permanent underclass. Then the newspaper reports a marvelous plan: No welfare payments until drug tests are taken. If the test is flunked, perhaps the state can provide treatment. No one is supposed to notice: Two generations of junkies have sought treatment, which the state has failed to deliver.

So it was wonderful to hear that violent crime in the city has dropped 10 percent. This means, by the cops' own figures, that 72,016 major crimes were reported in the first 10 months of the year. Or, about 7,200 crimes a month. Or about 1,800 a week. Maybe 250 a day.

Peace, it's wonderful.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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