Room for Improvement
Celebrated crime control measure actually a flop, former chief reveals
Violent criminals have a two-out-of-three chance of beating their charges in Baltimore, even if they are flagged as repeat violent offenders by the city's "War Room" project.
That's the conclusion of a report by the War Room's former chief, Page Croyder.
"The War Room, insofar as it was supposed to focus attention and resources on violent offenders to keep them off the street, has had no appreciable impact upon convictions for violent offenders or upon the results of probation and parole violation hearings," Croyder's report, "A Study of War Room Offenders," says.
The War Room was launched in 2003 by then Gov. Robert Ehrlich as a collaboration between the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office and Parole and Probation officials after Angela Dawson's family was murdered by a drug dealer she had called police about. The idea was to collect and analyze information about repeat, violent offenders and bring it to bear at their bail review hearings, so that dangerous criminals could be jailed--and prevented from harming others. Located on the first floor of the Central Booking and Intake Center at 300 E. Madison St., the War Room was tasked with paying special attention to anyone who was either on parole or probation for a violent crime when they were arrested for a new crime, or on probation or parole for any crime when they were arrested for a violent crime. "With this project firmly rooted, the City's most violent offenders will get the message that someone is always watching," Ehrlich said in the press release announcing the project.
Croyder's report, funded through an Abell Foundation grant to the Center for Emerging Media and published online June 21, found an overall conviction rate for War Room offenders of 35 percent on their new charges. But even those unlucky enough to be convicted seldom faced punishment: No more than 37 percent of those convicted of new crimes saw their parole or probation status revoked. Finally, most of those who were convicted and did go to prison "either served less than the balance of their [original] sentence or served it at the same time that they served a sentence in their new case," the report says.
Bottom line: A convicted, violent criminal's chances of serving additional prison time after being charged with a new crime in Baltimore are approximately three out of 100.
The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention has channeled more than $4 million to the War Room since its inception. "I want to thank Governor Ehrlich for funding this model initiative that is designed to protect public safety and providing the resources to leverage the highest level of collaboration among our Baltimore City criminal justice partners," Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy was quoted as saying in the initial 2003 press release. "I am committed to removing the most violent offenders from our communities for as long as possible."
But that commitment quickly waned, says Croyder, who coordinated the War Room under Jessamy and wrote several critical annual reports thereafter. In 2004, for example, Croyder wrote that the "current staffing appears to be the minimal level necessary to keep up with the current caseload." Croyder's criticism of complex "diminution credits" and "street time"--and the unexpected ways they reduced violent offenders' prison sentences--precipitated a battle with officials from Parole and Probation in 2005. Croyder contends Jessamy had no heart for the bureaucratic infighting--despite her continual sparring with the Baltimore City Police Department.
Croyder says her annual reports were heavily edited by Jessamy, so by 2007, "I stopped writing these long detailed reports--because they went into the trash can." Croyder retired from the State's Attorney's office in 2008.
Croyder's new report, based on a comprehensive review of the criminal histories of about 10 percent of the more than 8,200 violent repeat offenders in the War Room database, starkly contrasts the sunny tone of Jessamy's official 2007 War Room annual report, which concluded that "The War Room is a criminal justice success story." Jessamy declined to comment on Croyder's new report, according to a spokeswoman.
Gregg Bernstein, a former federal prosecutor who announced his bid to replace Jessamy last week, read Croyder's study. "I find it disturbing in that a program that was initiated to identify and track the most dangerous offenders who had been accused of new crimes winds up with a conviction rate of 35 percent," Bernstein says. "And I find it equally disturbing that when you also track these individuals' violation of probation and violation of parole hearings, you find that they had their probation revoked only 37 percent of the time, and their parole revoked only 35 percent of the time."
The one-third conviction rate may or may not be worse than other jurisdictions. Bernstein says he does not know how well other jurisdictions fared prosecuting violent crime. Neither does Croyder. Kristen Mahoney, executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, says she is not aware of the conviction rates in other jurisdictions, "but generally, we don't compare one jurisdiction to another." She says in an e-mail that Croyder's recommendations are "very good."
Croyder suggests that the Office of Crime Control and Prevention more closely monitor the data that the War Room collects. And she also touts a new kind of abbreviated rap sheet to allow busy prosecutors to quickly see a given defendant's criminal history, including arrests. Such a rap sheet could be compiled using new software to integrate the various databases maintained by the Division of Corrections, police, and the court systems themselves, she writes.
Mahoney touts a new system called Dashboard, which "links more than 90 databases as an 'easy button' for law enforcement," but Croyder says that system is not practical for prosecutors, who usually lack the required access to the database.
The main failure of the War Room, Croyder says, was its failure to change the institutional culture of the State's Attorney's Office and the related agencies: "Most of these folks, you have these cases, you're just pushing them through the same way you were taught to push them through."
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