Bargain-basement justice not much of a deal for city

YESTERDAY, IN what used to be the basement of a department store, a prosecutor named Patricia Deros called 106 minor criminal cases - drug possession, trespassing, theft, perverted practices, rolling dice for money - in Early Disposition Court, the one the wise-guy mayor of Baltimore promoted last year, in stick-figure terms, as a remedy to the city's clogged judicial system.

Here's what happened to the 106 defendants whose names were called over a two-hour period:

Seven had their cases dismissed.

Twelve failed to appear, and Judge C. Yvonne Holt-Stone issued warrants for their arrests.

Seven entered guilty pleas. Among these were a 75-year-old Baltimore man and a 29-year-old Afghani accused of soliciting an undercover police officer for sex; a 44-year-old woman with depression and anorexia who was accused of shoplifting goods from a pharmacy in Hampden and who wept and said she was ashamed; a 22-year-old guy from Howard County who bought heroin in West Baltimore; a 37-year-old heroin addict accused of buying his drug on a street in East Baltimore; a 49-year-old man who was accused of cocaine possession and who tested positive for the drug when the judge sent him out of the courtroom for urinalysis; and a 67-year-old man who admitted buying a weekend supply of heroin last Friday afternoon for his wife in Southwest Baltimore.

All but one of the guilty-pleaders accepted the judge's sentences - ranging from probation before judgment to suspended jail time - without gripe.

The 67-year-old man who bought heroin for his wife complained about his sentence because it included 12 months of supervised probation. He wanted his year to be unsupervised, so he wouldn't have to lose time from his job in the parts department of a car dealership. The judge refused to reconsider his sentence.

The man's experience - and unhappiness - might explain why the remaining 80 defendants did what so many other visitors to Early Disposition Court have done since this experiment in Jiffy Justice commenced six months ago: They asked, as is their right, to stand trial.

Their cases were set for dates in April and in May in courtrooms one flight up, in Eastside District Court (the former Sears Roebuck store on North Avenue) and in the District Court building on Wabash Avenue.

They passed up a chance for Jiffy Justice -to get their cases settled in the bargain basement of the city's judicial system - because they believe they'll fare better when they return in the spring.

Maybe the state's witnesses won't show up. Maybe a judge will give them a better deal than the one they were offered yesterday morning. Maybe the charges against them will be dismissed.

Whatever their rationale, the majority opinion appears to be: Come back later. Take LD - late disposition - not ED.

Defendants named Jenkins, Johnson, English, Nance, Gardner, Robinson, Wiggins, Rivers, Coleman and Frost all took this option, along with 70 others, arrested for various misdemeanors over the weekend.

Some young guys were charged with playing craps. Men in suits were charged with trying to buy sex from hookers or undercover cops posing as hookers. Many men and women were charged with possession of cocaine and heroin. Several were charged with having marijuana on them.

After processing the paperwork on 18 defendants who had asked to stand trial in the spring, Judge Holt-Stone hit the pause button on Deros' efficient and breathtaking call of the docket to make what apparently has become a customary speech.

"Most of these cases so far have something to do with drugs and prostitution," Holt-Stone said, "and prostitution usually has something to do with drugs. And I know theft cases have something to do with drugs. It's about time you took control of your lives."

She spoke in a clear, firm voice - adamant, not weary like that of some judges who have seen too many dopeheads and hookers stand before them.

"A little white powder and a little green leafy substance should not control your lives. ... I can say it, other judges can say it over and over and over again: ... When your children become drug addicts, you don't have to wonder why."

I liked her speech.

I wish that's all it would take - a good talking-to from a stern judge. But I've been to District Court many times over the years, and the faces of defendants look familiar even to me, a courthouse interloper.

A veteran of Baltimore's judicial system describes most attempts at crime fighting and court reform as "the attempt to bail out a sinking boat with a rotten hull." And the rot in the hull is drug addiction.There is no clearer truth about life in Baltimore today.

If the mayor of Baltimore hadn't twinned drug treatment funds with this attempt at Jiffy Justice, I'd declare Early Disposition Court a waste of time.

Supposedly this particular reform will soon appropriate some ideas from the well-intentioned, well-planned, now-scrapped Community Court - social workers to provide pretrial assessments of defendants, case management for substance abuse and mental illness.

So there's some reason to hope this quickie docket will unclog the courts and get some of these pathetic defendants into the cycle of help and treatment rather than the cycle of arrest and incarceration.

Without that serious intervention - or serious consequences for defendants as they move up from the bargain basement - we're just rearranging deck chairs.

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