Mak­ing the Dillingers

Bal­ti­more’s vi­o­lent re­peat of­fend­ers aren’t born that way; the sys­tem cre­ates them

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Hal Riedl Hal Riedl retired from the Mary­land Di­vi­sion of Cor­rec­tion in 2010 and from the of­fice of the state’s at­tor­ney for Bal­ti­more City in De­cem­ber 2014. His email is haroldriedl@gmail.com.

The fraught re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bal­ti­more State’s At­tor­ney Mar­i­lyn J. Mosby and the city po­lice seemed to ease a bit the other day with the an­nounce­ment of a new joint ef­fort to end vi­o­lence. The idea is to team up un­der one roof a new unit fo­cused on bring­ing to jus­tice “those who are ad­min­is­ter­ing gun vi­o­lence in the city,” as Ms. Mosby po­litely put it.

But does she know what that will take? I have doubts. Let’s go to court to see what I mean.

On the fourth floor of Court­house East, Bal­ti­more Cir­cuit Judge Charles Peters pre­sides over a tiny court­room, where “re­cep­tion court” is un­der­way for the crim­i­nal docket. This is the first stop for pros­e­cu­tors, de­fense at­tor­neys, po­lice of­fi­cers, de­fen­dants and fam­ily mem­bers, who cram the few pews each busi­ness day on the slim pos­si­bil­ity that their case will ac­tu­ally go to trial.

Judge Peters calls the docket. Af­ter con­fer­ring with the lawyers on ei­ther side of a given case, he usu­ally grants a post­pone­ment. Much­less fre­quently, he finds an open court­room and di­rects the par­ties there. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the de­fen­dant is ready to plead guilty im­me­di­ately, in ex­change for a re­duced sen­tence as part of a deal struck with pros­e­cu­tors. When I was there a cou­ple of months ago, I hap­pened to wit­ness such an out­come.

The de­fen­dant was led in, wear­ing a yel­low jump­suit, hand­cuffs and shack­les. When all the boil­er­plate was read into the court record, the de­fen­dant left the court­room with the fol­low­ing sen­tence: for drug dis­tri­bu­tion, 10 years, all but 18 months sus­pended; for “hand­gun in the pos­ses­sion of a pro­hib­ited per­son,” one year, to run con­cur­rently with the 18 months.

Thus a man with a prior felony con­vic­tion, caught sell­ing drugs and pack­ing a gun, got a year and a half of in­car­cer­a­tion, with credit for time al­ready served prior to his plea. He could ex­pect to go home within a few months. There was noth­ing re­mark­able about this out­come. It hap­pens all the time in Bal­ti­more City.

Ms. Mosby wants to tar­get the 602 per­sons she blames for most of the daily shoot­ings — more than 175 of them fa­tal since the begin­ning of 2016 — that af­flict our city and in­ure us to vi­o­lence. “We­knowwho the trig­ger pullers are,” she said, call­ing them “vi­o­lent re­peat of­fend­ers.”

Our city has many of those, yes, but Ms. Mosby should keep in mind that you don’t go from be­ing late for choir prac­tice to be­ing John Dillinger overnight. You get to learn your craft be­cause the courts keep re­turn­ing the vast ma­jor­ity of gun of­fend­ers to the street — usu­ally with the bless­ing of the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice, which is staffed by heav­ily over­worked and in­creas­ingly in­ex­pe­ri­enced pros­e­cu­tors. (The brain drain in the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice since the begin­ning of 2015 has reached cri­sis pro­por­tions, by many ac­counts.) Judges are also are only too happy to com­ply; they have to clear their dock­ets, and the zeit­geist coun­sels against send­ing too many peo­ple to prison.

The Sun’s Kevin Rec­tor pro­vided a use­ful anal­y­sis on July 24 of this year, us­ing fig­ures pro­vided by Bal­ti­more Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis. As of that date, 822 peo­ple had been ar­rested for gun pos­ses­sion in the city (it would be nice to know how many of them had made bail), and court cases for 149 of them had worked their way through the sys­tem. Of those, 52 peo­ple had been found guilty, six were ac­quit­ted and the charges against 91 de­fen­dants — more than half of the ad­ju­di­cated cases — were dropped. The 52 peo­ple found guilty of il­le­gal gun pos­ses­sion were sen­tenced to a grand to­tal of 65 real-time, un­sus­pended, years in prison.

As Mr. Davis noted dur­ing the news con­fer­ence to an­nounce the new gun unit, il­le­gal pos­ses­sion of a firearm is still, shame­fully, a mis­de­meanor in Mary­land. But make no mis­take, he said: A gun ar­rest “is a pre-mur­der ar­rest.” (Let’s note here that 90 per­cent of last year’s 344 Bal­ti­more City homi­cides were ac­com­plished with a firearm.)

A sergeant and four full-time de­tec­tives will be as­signed to work with a new “elite” unit of pros­e­cu­tors to go af­ter the most sav­age gun of­fend­ers, as iden­ti­fied by var­i­ous crim­i­nal in­tel­li­gence sources. But will the new Gun Vi­o­lence En­force­ment Di­vi­sion have dis­cre­tion to go af­ter rookie gun of­fend­ers as well, be­fore they grad­u­ate to may­hem and mur­der? Will Ms. Mosby re­vise her in-house di­rec­tives to pros­e­cu­tors to work out sweet­heart plea agree­ments when­ever pos­si­ble? Will she con­sider call­ing out judges who con­sis­tently un­der­cut se­ri­ous sen­tenc­ing rec­om­men­da­tions?

Or will she wait un­til a shooter joins the Sav­age 600 to at­tempt to take him off the street for real?

KEVIN RICHARD­SON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Bal­ti­more Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis, left, and city State’s At­tor­ney Mar­i­lyn J. Mosby, cen­ter, an­nounce the cre­ation of a new task force this month fo­cus­ing on vi­o­lent re­peat of­fend­ers with guns.

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