A UM law professor challenges class to devise workable ideas

The Baltimore Sun

In a city where leaders have for years tried and failed to curtail one of the nation's highest crime rates, a University of Maryland law professor has turned his classroom into a crime-fighting think tank.

Professor Orde F. Kittrie is challenging his 13 students this semester to come up with workable ideas for making Baltimore and the rest of Maryland a safer place to live.

The proposals, due in the form of term papers, are not destined for burial in a dusty file cabinet, the product of mere intellectual exercise.

Instead, they will be submitted to public officials, including - at their request - State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, both of whom recently addressed Kittrie's class at the law school downtown.

The class, "Crime in Maryland: Problems and Proposed Solutions," has coalesced into a crusade to reduce crime, a seemingly intractable problem that has resisted most efforts at containment.

"Baltimore City is the one place that's not under control," Gansler told the students, noting that crimes committed by youths constitute the most crucial issue in law enforcement.

In that vein, four of Kittrie's students have chosen to focus on juvenile crime, and their chosen term-paper topics reflect their differing lines of attack.

Dropout problem

Bill Ferguson, 24, a Rockville native who is working as an intern for Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, is examining the correlation between juvenile crime and dropout rates. He suggests a "targeted approach to intervention in the sixth grade," an early-warning system that would single out problem youths before their bad habits become criminal acts.

Ferguson said the trick in early intervention is to "figure out who really needs it." To do that, he proposes a central database on each student with information compiled from the school system; the police; the state's attorney's office; and the departments of Social Services, Health and Juvenile Services.

The database, linked across departments, would enable caregivers and officials to "strategically intervene where services are most necessary," Ferguson said. "Then we might be able to proactively suggest programs to students and their families."

He said the database should distinguish which students have failed a class, have an attendance record below 65 percent, receive federal funds for low-income families, live in foster care and have been arrested at least once.

Based on that information, the city might offer a mentor-based program "aimed at students involved in potentially criminal behavior that's causing them to miss school," Ferguson said.

If, on the other hand, a student has failed three classes but has an attendance rate of 95 percent and a record of good behavior, then a different program might be required.

Another student, Dennis E. Robinson, 26, a former Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is directing his eye on the effectiveness of citizens who patrol their neighborhoods.

"I'm big on community efforts," said Robinson, who grew up in South Baltimore "before it became Federal Hill." But in Morrell Park, where he now lives, citizens patrols "didn't seem to have an effect on crime in the neighborhood," and Robinson was keen to find out why.

"I wanted to see a substantial, statistical measure of success, because if you prove that it works, you could get money to ramp it up," he said. The main problem, Robinson found, is that the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice employs only two people to create Citizens on Patrol programs and coordinate the crime-fighting efforts of the city's 180 neighborhood associations, with the result that there is little cohesion at the grass-roots level.

On the bright side, Robinson's research suggests that citizen policing generally works as a deterrent to crime, and he singled out Baltimore patrols like Northwest Citizens on Patrol and a similar group administered by the Harbel Community Organization in Northeast Baltimore.

"A lot of these programs are driven by individual personalities," Robinson said, "but if you can build up the infrastructure, you can sustain the effort."

He suggests expanding citizens' participation by recruiting "nontraditional demographics" like senior citizens and high-school students and expanding the role of groups like the auxiliary police and Guardian Angels.

To Byron Marshall II, the abandoned, boarded-up rowhouses of Baltimore are "a symptom but also a cause" of street crime. Such buildings, he said, become crack houses, havens for dog fighting, tombs.

"They have an effect on the people who live nearby," Marshall said. "They're less likely to take care of their neighborhood and less likely to report crime or consider things out of the norm."

Kids, housing

As disorderly conditions increase, so do residents' fears, said Marshall, who was born 26 years ago in Decatur, Ga., and lived in Atlanta, Washington and Detroit before moving to Baltimore to attend the law school.

The city's lack of affordable housing frustrates its efforts to monitor young ex-offenders and use them productively, Marshall said.

"I suggest that the city integrate job training into its efforts to maintain, rehabilitate and develop abandoned and affordable housing," said Marshall, who has a mechanical engineering degree from Howard University.

The city, he said, should lobby for legislation requiring the use of "green" materials in such developments, which would help Baltimore secure federal funds to maintain abandoned homes and build affordable housing.

Other students' projects seem equally intensive. Will Davis aims to uncover differences between ex-offenders and nonoffenders in their search for viable employment; Nina Wu is examining whether a juvenile court dedicated to gun crimes would help reduce gun violence in Baltimore; and Ingrid Lofgren seeks to ensure "that when juvenile offenders re-enter society they receive the counseling that they need so they do not quickly return to committing crimes," Kittrie said.

"Her sense is that not enough is being done for juvenile offenders," said Kittrie, who expressed unbridled pride in his students' efforts and hope that their proposals "will make a real contribution to the fight against crime in Baltimore."

He also hopes that, if that happens, they will be inspired to embark on careers in public service.

Kittrie grew up in Bethesda and spent 11 years at the State Department, part of it as director of international anti-crime programs. He has a full-time post on the law faculty at Arizona State University in Tempe and is in Baltimore for a year as a visiting professor.

"If crime were not so prevalent in Maryland and Baltimore, we might not be teaching this course," said Kittrie, who was robbed three blocks from the law school last August, just before giving his first class. "There's a problem to be solved here."


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