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Courts: a kick in the teeth and a bump on the head


HIS NAME was Nicolson, and he showed up on Wabash Avenue yesterday, at the Edward F. Borgerding District Courthouse, with a lump on his head where his hairline was supposed to be and a look on his face of confused despair.

This put Nicolson in the same league with many others, including the mayor of Baltimore, who says he is nauseated by the things he sees in his city's courts; and with judges trying to invent order out of confusion; and with all those defendants and plaintiffs and witnesses who clog the courthouse corridors each day.

Such as yesterday, a week after the announced shrinking of Police Athletic League centers, and five days after Martin O'Malley's angry remarks to state legislators about court conditions, and just two days after O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger announced plans to cooperate on crime prevention.

Here was Nicolson, and, like many others, he was lost. The bump on his head had nothing to do with this. The bump came from a fight with a lady in his building, he said, but he was lost because this is the normal human condition in the courts.

At the Borgerding District Courthouse yesterday, it went like this: There were 57 people awaiting trial -- in one courtroom, the Southwest District. In the Northern District courtroom, 50 more cases were scheduled. In the Western, 60 more. Northwest, 51 more. And in two traffic courts, a total of 195 cases were scheduled.

This means 218 people awaited trial, not including those in the traffic courts. On one day. On a perfectly normal, routine day, declared Brian Hamer, supervisor of bailiffs. He glanced at a list of names and numbers printed on pages and pages of caseloads, and stood a few feet from the defendant Nicolson.

"Where am I?" Nicolson asked.

He meant this literally. He looked about 30 years old but said he could not read. He said his case involved second-degree assault, but he wasn't sure which court was handling his case.

"What did you do?" he was asked now.

"She hit me," he said. "In my building, a little fight, and she hit me and stabbed me and hit me with a pot."

He pointed to the bump on his head. He pointed with a hand wrapped in some kind of bandage. A little fight, indeed. In the district courts, we have what the law regards as the little incidentals of the streets -- burglary and robbery and assaults, car thefts, the things considered too piddly for the circuit courts, the things that merely deal routine kicks in the teeth to neighborhoods, and hundreds of these turn up each morning in these district courts.

Now the city braces for another shot. A week ago, the police talked of diminishing Police Athletic League operations so that more officers could be put on the street to fight crime. Never mind that we live in a time of one-parent families, or families where both parents work, and that the PAL centers reach thousands of kids.

The police say they can put 20 more officers on the street by diminishing PAL operations. They can fight drug trafficking and violence, it is said. But certain questions are raised when you look at the numbers: What is the effect of 20 more police in a city with nine police districts? This is roughly two officers per district. Each district has three shifts. Two officers into three shifts means, on average, less than one officer per shift per district.

For this, we endanger centers that touch thousands of kids, so that they don't wind up in the crowded and confusing courthouses?

Then we have the mayor, Martin O'Malley, appearing last week before state legislators who had heard the state's chief judge, Robert Bell, describe "remarkable" progress made in the past year straightening out the criminal justice system.

"I'd like to throw up when I hear sworn judicial officers of this state saying we should have a celebration," O'Malley told a joint hearing of two House committees. He asked legislators to withhold state money for the courts as long as the courts continue to be "dysfunctional." Several legislators later said they were impressed with O'Malley's bluntness and his honesty.

Then, two days ago, O'Malley and Dutch Ruppersberger expressed their frustration with crime. For Ruppersberger, it followed last week's killing of the policeman Bruce Prothero and the sense that some of the city's crime problems are becoming the county's.

The two vowed an alliance against crime and neighborhood blight. It was nice to feel their energy. It is, at last, the response to places such as the district court building on Wabash Avenue, where they come by the hundreds each morning and face the confusion, and the whole thing seems to have a huge bump on its head.

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