Incarceration isn't enough; place addicts where they can get help

The Baltimore Sun

Christopher Nieto believes in Baltimore.

His car has been broken into four times. They took his iPod, his Discman and the empty plastic suction cup that held his navigational device. They even stripped the rubber off his wiper blades.

His former house in Pigtown was burglarized three times. They took two television sets, his suits, watches and two laptop computers.

"I have absolutely nothing left of value anymore," he says. "I'm down to a pretty skeletal home life."

Christopher Nieto also believes in his job.

He is a public defender. Both a victim of crime and an advocate for suspected criminals.

"I'm very aware of the irony of my situation," he says.

Nieto called me after seeing the name of one of his clients in the newspaper, Michael D. Sydnor Jr., who is in jail awaiting trial on charges of breaking into cars in a garage on North Charles Street.

I wrote about Sydnor to put a face on the car break-in problem after visiting Cub Scouts found their two vehicles broken into while on a trip to the National Aquarium. Sydnor has been arrested more than 100 times and convicted more than 30 times for drugs, trespassing and theft. I later learned that he is also a suspect in a series of break-ins at the Calvert Street garages next to The Baltimore Sun and Mercy Medical Center.

Nieto, who has since left the state to work for the federal public defender's office, represented Sydnor in November 2007 after he was arrested on a charge of breaking the window of a car parked on Redwood Street and stealing an iPod, a video game system and an ashtray. Sydnor wanted a jury trial, and his theft case was pushed to the overcrowded docket in Baltimore Circuit Court.

It's where cases and people go to get lost.

And in many ways, that's what happened to Sydnor.

Nieto feels horrible about it.

Before the letters start pouring in: Neither I nor Nieto is saying that Sydnor doesn't deserve to go to jail if he is found guilty, perhaps now for a long time. But he is an admitted drug addict who pleaded guilty with the promise that he would get into a coveted in-patient treatment slot.

"I can still remember him standing next to me," Nieto says. "He was different, really different. He was begging for help. He couldn't stop talking to me about how he really, really wanted help."

Nieto finagled the system and maneuvered to avoid a hard-line judge - and then let the case slip through his fingers.

Sydnor was prepared to plead guilty in December 2007 to theft (a three-year maximum penalty) and malicious destruction of property (a 60-day maximum penalty). But Nieto said the arraignment judge wasn't the treatment-type, and so he advised his client to plead not guilty and ask for a jury trial.

All the while, Nieto assured the prosecutor that his client would indeed plead guilty, but this time before the trial judge, one more sympathetic to helping drug addicts. Sydnor would accept a sentence of 18 months, and Nieto would return to court in a few weeks, ask the judge to reconsider the sentence and suspend some of the time and order his client into drug treatment.

The judge sentenced Sydnor to the 18 months, as planned. Nieto filed a motion for the sentence to be rethought, as planned. Then nothing happened.

"The motion wasn't denied, it wasn't granted," Nieto told me. "Maybe it got lost, maybe it got stuck in the wrong in box."

Nieto takes the blame.

"It's possible it fell through the cracks. I should've followed up a little more. Maybe if I kept on the judge, kept the file on my desk and hounded him and hounded him, maybe I could've gotten him into some treatment program. ... We failed him."

The result was that Sydnor served a little more than a year in prison and was released. Back on the streets with, his former lawyer adds, "absolutely no drug treatment."

A few months after that, Sydnor was arrested again, in the garage on North Charles Street, and, if security officials at Mercy and The Sun follow through, he could face a pile of charges that could send him to prison for longer than the 18 months to which he seems accustomed.

Nobody is saying that Sydnor, or the hundreds or thousands of others like him, deserve break after break. But why he is still on the streets is not as simple as bleeding-heart judges or mistakes in the system or cops failing or prosecutors not caring. Maybe now the cops and prosecutors can put together a case against him that involves more than just one or two break-ins.

Nieto doesn't want Sydnor on the street either: "Don't just give him a slap on the wrist and send him on his merry way. I'm not asking for the moon here. Put him someplace where he can get help."

We have too many addicts and too few treatment beds. In a perfect world, lawyers wouldn't have to trick the system to get the help their clients need. If he is found guilty, Sydnor should go to prison. He also should get help, so when he gets out - and it's when, not if - he might not break into cars anymore.

Sydnor told Nieto, "Don't just send me out on my own. I can't do this by myself."

They sent him out on his own.

Are we surprised that he failed?

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