Recently arrested feel only 'little guys' get busted

They're Baltimore's lost citizens.

Arrested, jailed, released. Arrested, jailed, released. Arrested, jailed released.

Drugs. Theft. Drugs Loitering. Drugs. Breaking into cars. Drugs.

An occasional assault, but usually nothing too violent.

They cycle through Central Booking — the first stop in their familiar odyssey through the city's tortuous criminal justice system — as if the temporary holding cells were merely roadside motels that charge by the hour.

These are not the "bad guys with guns," nor are they the murderers or the shooters or the rapists. These are the people most often arrested in Baltimore: the miscreants, the dope fiends, the hustlers, the boozers.

They're caught in the corner sweeps and small-time busts, put into the back of a police van and driven into the sprawling, rectangular booking center through a garage door on East Madison Street. They leave, if they're lucky, 12 to 18 hours later through a door on East Eager Street, carrying their possessions in a see-through garbage-pail-sized bag.

They're important because we talked about them for weeks as we pondered the race for state's attorney that pitted incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy, who conceded Friday, against upstart Gregg Bernstein, who will be the city's new top prosecutor.

We talked about these arrestees without really talking about them, with language couched in the rhetoric of politics, policy and programs. Would Bernstein really lock everyone up, and would that curtail crime? Does Jessamy really coddle criminals because she advocates helping people in trouble?

What do the cops think? What do preachers think? What do the pundits think? We talked to college professors and former mayors, to talk show hosts and city councilmen, to campaign workers and to spokespeople.

We didn't talk to the people who keep getting arrested. People like the woman who gave me her name as Tanya Williams.

I caught up with her outside Central Booking and watched her dump her clear bag onto the top of a stone wall. Standing on the sidewalk, she put on her belt and a black plastic headband and slung her purse over her shoulder. She combed her hair.

She had been arrested Tuesday evening and charged with drug possession and released on bail Wednesday afternoon. She told me he was 38, and she gave me a date of birth, but later I couldn't find her name in any arrest or court records.

Her name might be made up, but her story is sadly familiar. She told me that she's addicted to heroin and that she's been arrested repeatedly over the years.

She didn't follow the contentious campaign for state's attorney. She didn't concern herself with whether programs or jail would curtail violence. She didn't study who would make the city safer. It didn't matter to her who eventually won.

She didn't vote.

If arrestees in Baltimore enjoy any social status, Williams knows where she stands: at the very bottom.

"To me, it doesn't matter who is the prosecutor because all they ever do is go after the little people and leave the big people alone," she told me.

She is the "little people." Part of the cog that helps grind the city's criminal justice system to a halt.

We complain about the violent offenders who have mastered the city's so-called revolving door of justice, and we forget that the system is overwhelmed because it throws tens of thousands of people just like Tanya Williams into the same judicial trough.

We have yet to figure out how to separate the offenders who commit violence from the offenders who steal to get high. They need to be punished too, but by throwing the addicts in with the gunmen at the very beginning of the arrest process, everyone gets shortchanged.

Too often, the gunmen don't get the attention they deserve and walk free to kill someone, becoming the city's latest poster child for failed justice. And too often the Tanya Williamses of the city get tossed back onto the streets as human detritus, without the help they need or the jail time they deserve.

I talked with about a dozen people as they emerged from having spent hour upon hour awaiting their bail hearings in Central Booking. The interviews were fleeting. Few wanted to stick around and tell their life stories. They chatted until their rides came, or, as with Williams, until she finished dressing, and then they were gone.

Jessamy accused Bernstein of wanting to lock up the entire city, and Bernstein accused Jessamy of placating criminals with programs instead of jail. Cops have backed off sweeping arrest policies of the past, instead favoring targeted enforcement of violent offenders. Arrests in the city have dropped from 108,000 in 2005 to just over 77,000 last year.

Still, the jails are filled with people like Gregg Williams, 23, who got busted for holding three grams of marijuana. The way he tells it, he was getting out of his car in front of his West Baltimore house while holding an open can of beer. A cop swooped in and cuffed Williams and his brother, and then found the drugs in his car.

"The last time I got picked up for three grams, the cop took it and told me to walk away," Williams told me as he waited outside Central Booking for his brother. "This guy locked me up. I think the election must have something to do with it. They all need their stats."

Williams said he didn't know anything about Jessamy or Bernstein, but he said it doesn't matter anyway. He lumped prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, cops and jail guards into one category — "They're all police," he scoffed.

Amber Paul got arrested for failing to pay her fare aboard a Light Rail train. She was rushing to grab the train to reach her first day at work at a substance abuse center, and her husband worried that the 18 hours spent waiting for a bail hearing might cost her a new chance on life.

Eighteen hours in jail for failure to buy a $1.60 train ticket. And she still might be found not guilty.

"I can take you to 10 places with worse crime," said Christopher Paul, as he waited on East Eager Street for his wife to emerge from the booking center. "With all the crime we got in this city, and they hold her for this?"

If she stole a ride on light rail, Amber Paul deserves to be punished. But there's got to be a better way to deal with her than throwing her into a jail in the same queue as the suspected murderers. If she loses her job, then it just costs taxpayers more.

The stories seem endless, and I confess, incomplete.

But these people shouldn't be forgotten. They are part of the debate.

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