Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Ivan Bates wants the Baltimore Community Court we should have had 23 years ago | COMMENTARY

Defense attorney Ivan Bates, who won the July Democratic primary for Baltimore State's Attorney, wants to establish a Baltimore Community Court to handle low-level offenses and get defendants the help they need to stay out of trouble.

Longtime readers of this longtime column, please forgive me: I need to go over old ground because what’s old — or, actually, never was — is new again. If Ivan Bates has his way, Baltimore will have something the city should have had before the turn of the century: a community court and, with it, fewer people who are addicted to drugs, fewer who are homeless and probably fewer squeegee workers or none at all.

So, if you remember this issue, pardon my redundancy. I need to explain this again because Bates, the next Baltimore State’s Attorney — he’s unopposed in November’s general election — wants to revive the community court idea, and it’s a good idea.


Background: In the early 1990s, the city of New York established a Midtown Manhattan Community Court, the intent being to combine swift justice with an array of social services to help low-level repeat offenders break their cycle of crime. There was a new legal culture emerging at the time, with a focus on the root causes of crime — mental illness, drug addiction, chronic unemployment. In addition to a judge, prosecutor and public defender, the community court had room for social workers and workers from city and state agencies — health, housing, employment, education — to help defendants.

This was critical intervention during judicial triage, directing men and women chronically in trouble to the services they needed. Early results were good, and the Manhattan innovation soon became a model for courts around the country.


By the fall of 1997, civic-spirited Baltimoreans had put together an impressive package for a community court here: With a $275,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, the Greater Baltimore Committee Foundation bought a building on Gay Street to house it. The next year, the Maryland General Assembly provided $740,000 for a Baltimore Community Court staff. The GBC raised private funds for capital costs and operations.

The BCC would have helped people who had been arrested for prostitution, drug possession, shoplifting or other misdemeanors. Over the years, whenever I heard people screaming about squeegee workers bothering them in traffic, I thought about the role a community court might have played in directing those teens and young adults to better endeavors.

My tone is regretful because Baltimore Community Court never happened.

Martin O’Malley won the 1999 election, selected by voters because of his intense focus on reducing crime across the city. He nixed the Community Court proposal and convinced the judiciary to establish an early disposition docket in the District Court to handle the flood of cases that soon would result from the zero-tolerance policing his administration brought to the city.

The early disposition court was an arraignment court that offered community service and a drug diversion program. It did not offer the array of immediate social services found in the community court model.

I suggested a revival of the idea several times — whenever a new mayor came along, and again last year after Marilyn Mosby, the current state’s attorney, decreed that her office would no longer prosecute drug possession, prostitution and other low-level offenses. Business owners and city residents complained that street sales of drugs, public urination and prostitution took place in plain sight, and that the police did nothing because they knew Mosby’s shrinking staff would not prosecute.

Bates, who will replace Mosby in January, says he intends to reverse her policy, but, at the same time, he wants to establish a community court — that is, a transition of the early resolution docket to weekly community courts offering the services prescribed in the original plan.

Bates was not aware of the community court proposal of the 1990s, but says he will revisit the idea with its original funders.


In the meantime, he says, he plans to speak to judges about establishing a weekly community court docket in each of the District Courts on North Avenue, Wabash Avenue and Patapsco Avenue.

And then there’s the matter of getting city agencies and nonprofits to commit to assigning staff to each court.

Bates doesn’t think that will be a problem. Since winning the Democratic primary in July, he says, he’s been flooded with offers of help from several organizations.

Bates is quick to point out that his main priority is rebuilding the staff at the State’s Attorney’s Office and focusing on violent offenders. But he also wants to help people who commit lesser offenses.

“I can’t walk past them, I have to hold them accountable,” he says. “But accountability doesn’t have to be with a judge. [It can be] as simple as a citation, and ‘I’m in this program, and this program is helping me.’ It’s directing individuals to services that a lot of them need. … It’s not about hurting people. It’s, ‘I’m going to hold you accountable, but here are all the services that you need. You need a job? OK. You need job training? OK. You need a driver’s license? OK.’”

Bates has looked at a community court in Eugene, Oregon that combines access to social services with supervised community service; it significantly reduced the rate of rearrest among defendants. There’s a similar court in Miami, also praised as effective, that Bates wants to visit.


Coordinating a Baltimore Community Court will take time, and it might not happen in Bates’ first year as state’s attorney. But it should not be a hard sell. After all, we were primed for its launch before the turn of the century.