Baltimore Community Court — an idea worth pursuing

In the campaign for Baltimore state's attorney, we had the incumbent, Patricia Jessamy, touting her expansive concepts of the chief prosecutor's role and speaking frequently about a "three-pronged approach" to crime — prevention, treatment and law enforcement. Her opponent, Gregg Bernstein, pushed a narrower agenda: "Fight crime first."

Looks like Gregg Bernstein might have won the election.

Looks like "fight violent crime first and do all the other touchy-feely stuff later" might have lost.

But not so fast. I asked Bernstein about this specifically: Did he support drug treatment court? Yes. Did he think there ought to be special handling of minor offenders, those men and women who drift around the city in the heroin haze, or who stand on street corners sipping wine, or who keep getting in trouble because they are homeless? To that end, would he go for reconsideration of a promising idea that Martin O'Malley rejected when he became mayor 11 years ago?

I'm talking about the Baltimore Community Court.

I've pushed it before. So did a lot of smart people in the legal and business establishment — the civic do-gooders who actually care about the city's future. A number of them thought long and hard about how to make the criminal justice system in this town more effective and more focused on the most serious crimes while actually improving the quality of life in neighborhoods and along the downtown tourist routes.

Mr. Bernstein came close to endorsing a revival of community court. I hope he gives it serious consideration if he takes over Mrs. Jessamy's job.

A Baltimore community court, like the one that has been operating in midtown Manhattan since the Giuliani days, would provide swift justice with an array of social services to help low-level (non-violent) repeat offenders break their cycle of crime and stay off the streets. Drug addicts, prostitutes, shoplifters, unemployed ex-offenders who keep getting pinched for minor offenses and violating probation — they'd get help instead of jail sentences. This was a holistic approach to misdemeanor nuisance crimes — judicial triage performed Monday through Sunday, with the root causes of bad behavior (unemployment, addiction, alcoholism, illiteracy) identified and addressed, all in one building. There would be treatment counselors, job counselors, nurses, social workers, a mental health professional on duty — along with a judge and her courtroom entourage.

"In short," the Greater Baltimore Committee said in its advocacy 13 years ago, "[community court] brings the essence of justice to ground level, where it can be visible and effective."

Once upon a time, there was money behind this project. With a $275,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, the GBC bought a building on Gay Street to house the new court. In 1998, a tough-to-convince General Assembly finally approved $740,000 for a staff. The GBC raised $1.6 million in private funds for capital costs and $970,000 for operations.

But Martin O'Malley became mayor in 1999, community court was scrapped, and ArrestFest commenced.

Right out of the box, as police launched the zero-tolerance initiatives that resulted in thousands of arrests for minor offenses, Mr. O'Malley pushed for what became known as Early Disposition (later Early Resolution) Court to handle the load. Supposedly, the concepts behind community court were rolled into ED Court. But that didn't happen; the ED Court did not offer the array of immediate social and health services Baltimore's most chronically troubled population needs.

Mr. O'Malley was elected mayor on an anti-crime platform, and he reflected the impatience of the citizenry in pushing for immediate fixes to systemic problems he saw for many years as a city councilman. But that doesn't mean his idea was better than the one the GBC had in place.

"The [Gay Street] building was sold and Abell was repaid," Don Fry, the chairman of the GBC, told me Wednesday. "The remaining money that was donated and designated strictly for community court purposes was returned. The remaining donations not restricted were used for other public safety purposes such as video cameras. The plans are still in files of the GBC."

Mr. Bernstein or Mrs. Jessamy — whoever is state's attorney after the final votes are counted — Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake should all take another look at them.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR FM.

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