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95 South, ‘The Wire’ and a judge’s lament

The first leg of my summer vacation involved a 14-hour drive to Florida with just me and a golden retriever. (Don’t ask.) The conversations tended to be a little one-sided, but 95 South is painfully efficient, and we made it in one piece.

You have a lot of time to think on a trip that long, coupled with interesting radio choices on the FM dial. One thing is for sure: The lower-numbered FM stations are more likely to make you a better person, either by force or osmosis. It’s all jazz, NPR-type broadcasting or religious songs and preaching.

This is especially true when you hit North Carolina and points south. Frankly, it gets a little too “Children of the Corn” for me at times, but that tends to focus the driving a bit. As in please-don’t-run-out-of-gas focus. I could have sworn Malachi sold me a Frosty outside Savannah, Ga., though. Thank God for Miles Davis.

What stinks about being an attorney is that you’re never truly on vacation. Every now and then a case pops into your head, followed by short bursts of panic. Discovery, experts, deadlines, oh my! Sometimes, though, you’ll think of a great deposition question or a can’t-miss closing argument. I’ve often wondered if you can bill for that time.

Eventually, productive thoughts are vanquished by the 10,000th highway billboard for South of the Border. Just driving by the place makes me want to take a shower –- or maybe buy some fireworks, then take a shower.

When I got back from vacation I tried to catch up on the local news. Apparently Baltimore City is back to being a daily episode of “The Wire.”

In fact, within the past few weeks, there have been two dead bodies found within a two-block radius of my office. I work downtown in what’s normally a safe business district, near popular hotels like the Tremont and the Sheraton. Now when I go out for lunch I find myself on the lookout for Marlo Stanfield and Snoop carrying a screw gun.

All joking aside, it’s getting ridiculous. The most shocking murder in the recent crime wave involved Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn.

You know the story: On his way home from Penn Station, while talking on his cell phone with his mother, Pitcairn is (allegedly) robbed by career criminals on a nighttime hunt for victims. Then, despite complying with the assailants’ demands, he’s stabbed and left to die, near the gutter on a street in Charles Village.

A particularly disturbing part of the story as I’ve read it is that the alleged murderer, John A. Wagner, had been before a Baltimore City judge on several violation of probation (VOP) charges but received none of the backup time, despite his prior crime being violent in nature. In other words, Wagner could have been in jail the day he (allegedly) shanked a 23-year old guy who wanted to help fight cancer.

Here’s the point: Baltimore City is like many urban centers where it’s difficult to suppress crime and prevent recidivism. The main cause, of course, is the “Don’t Snitch”/”Ready to Die” culture that allows criminals to thrive, leaving an exasperated police force and state’s attorney’s office.

A surprising part of the problem, however, is the crop of judges who sentence too lightly –- even when the crimes are violent in nature.

When I clerked, I was fortunate enough to work for a trial judge who seemed to consider the victims’ and citizens’ rights first, especially in cases involving violence and fraud. Repeat offenders were dealt with harshly because that’s what they deserved. Violation of probation was a serious matter because, essentially, it was someone thumbing his nose at a second chance.

I’ve never met the judge accused of letting Wagner off easy. What you hope, though, is that he took the time to review everything before the VOP hearings. You hope he considered Wagner’s record and had a plausible explanation for not sending him to jail.

You hope he’s not the type of judge who exhaled when he was appointed, as if his legal race was run and he could now enjoy shorter work days, a lower golf handicap and a sweet pension. You hope he understands how his job has a direct effect on the safety and well-being of the general public.

Then you hope that all judges realize why Dante reserved the deepest parts of hell for the violent and the deceitful. That they realize it’s a small miracle these days to convict Baltimore bad guys, so erring on the side of lengthy sentences makes more sense than not.

Going forward you hope that, when deciding how long to sentence violent recidivists, they’ll think of Stephen Pitcairn, the kid who may have cured cancer, the kid whose killer shouldn’t have been on the streets in the first place.

3 comments

  1. Dont want to end up in an abandoned house amongst the other bodies!!!

  2. The problem is far more complicated than I think you suggest. One, we need an effective city state’s attorney who will prosecute offenders instead of cutting back room plea deals necessitated by incompetence. Second, we need to stop fooling ourselves into believing that increased incarceration will decrease crime. The vast majority of crimes are committed by non-violent offenders who would likely not offend under different socio-economic circumstances. If you take even half of them out of the judicial equation, by reaching them at an early stage with programs designed to educate and empower, you free up resources to deal with the truly scary people from whom we need to be protected. Or, in the alternative, you can fire Nancy Forster and gleefully let the fees roll in.

  3. Jason:

    I disagree with your assessment that judges “erring on the side of lengthy sentences makes more sense than not.” I have worked as a criminal defense lawyer for nearly 20 years now.

    While Baltimore is portrayed in the media as a revolving door justice jurisdiction, the reality is that a lot of folks are going to prison. Do you know what we call jails and prisons? Gladiator schools. No programs, education is nearly non-existent, barbaric conditions provide lots of time to learn how to become more violent.

    The work has to start much earlier before a broken person is placed on the door step of the criminal justice system. Treatment works and addiction, mental illness and poverty are the true undercurrent of the bulk of the criminal justice system.

    We incarcerate more people than anywhere in the entire world. With our economic difficulties, the average taxpayer is one day going to wake up to the many cottage industries built around jails and prisons. Did you know that there is a private prison industry well underway? http://www.correctionscorp.com/facility/52/

    I also have to comment on your statement that you worked for a trial judge “who seemed to consider the victims’ and citizens’ rights first.” How can you endorse the one neutral party in the system who is responsbile for making sure that due process is put into effect and to make sure that no innocent person is punished is operating with a preference for the victim and citizens first?

    Thanks for taking the time to listen and I am glad to answer any questions you may have.

    Peace, Love and Understanding,

    Chris Flohr