Mission Creep: Burglars With Drug Problems. And Drug Courts With Burglar Problems. And Reporters With Truthiness Problems.

Atlanta is not the only city where recidivists with long records of serious crime are being permitted to avoid jail sentences because they are also drug addicts. From the Ithaca Journal, Ithaca, New York:

In a plea deal with prosecutors, a Groton woman charged with taking part in burglaries in three counties has been sentenced to time served, five years probation and ordered to attend drug court for local crimes.

Judge John Rowley sentenced Julianna Salerno, 30, on Friday after she pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary in Tompkins County Court. Salerno admitted that she waited in a vehicle and “acted as a lookout” for Daniel Samson, 25, of Groton, when he broke in and stole items from a building at Treman State Park.

Salerno and Samson were charged with six counts of third-degree burglary, four counts of third-degree criminal mischief, and petit larceny, a misdemeanor. . .

They were also linked to Cortland County burglaries at the Greek Peak Ski Resort and Hope Lake, and Cayuga County burglaries at Salmon Creek Sports, Grisamore Farms, Badman’s Bushel Baskets Produce, Ron’s Corner Store, Triangle Restaurant and Longpoint State Park, according to law-enforcement officials. [Ithaca Journal, “Groton Woman Receives Sentence,” 4/27/09, fee for viewing]

More than a dozen burglaries, and this woman is being offered probation and community-based treatment, instead of conviction and incarceration, because she has a drug problem. This type of story, which plays out every day, severely challenges the conventional wisdom that our prisons are stuffed with otherwise innocent drug addicts serving long sentences for merely possessing drugs. Claims that prison populations have expanded because states are locking up mere addicts are not true either, as this chart on inmates from the Department of Justice clearly shows:

The problem, again, is lenient judges, not to mention a system so steeped in anti-incarceration ideology that the mere idea that someone might expect to go to prison for committing a dozen burglaries can no longer even be taken for granted. The judge who sentenced Salerno apparently felt the need to say out loud that there was some possibility that she might go to jail despite her addiction:

While acknowledging Salerno’s actions may have been a “drug-related crime spree,” Rowley told her that she’ll be facing incarceration if she doesn’t adhere to her probation terms and treatment programs.

In other words, Salerno was permitted to get away with at least a dozen crimes against others, but if she messes up in rehab, a crime against herself, then the state might decide get serious with her. Is it any wonder that people have a hard time believing that the justice system is there to protect the rights of anyone except criminals?

Drug courts were never supposed to be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for people with long offense records. They were supposed to be used to divert first-time offenders whose primary offense was drug-related. But even the term “drug-related” has been twisted: now, apparently, any crime committed by a drug addict is “drug-related,” as the judge in the case above above uses the term.

Another example of abusing both the concept of drug courts and the concept of “drug-related” crime, from the Baltimore Sun — note the reporter’s empathy for the criminal, and his disturbing efforts to downplay his crimes:

Break-In Artist Finally Gets Into Drug Program

Peter Hermann | Baltimore Crime Beat

Michael D. Sydnor Jr. is finally getting the help that he needs.

This is no small accomplishment, as District Judge George M. Lipman made cle[a]r when he learned that the drug-addicted defendant suspected of fueling a plague of car break-ins in downtown Baltimore had been accepted into an inpatient treatment program.

“Hallelujah,” the judge said, a pronouncement not often heard from the bench, and certainly not from this jurist, who apologized several times for being too preachy during Friday morning’s docket at the Hargrove District Court in South Baltimore. He told one man, upset that being sent off to jail meant his car would be towed, “I don’t wipe people’s noses.”

No, the judge doesn’t wipe people’s noses, but that probably needs to be put into the record, just to be clear, because he otherwise plays head cheerleader for repeat felons, as does the reporter. The victims? Well, never mind them: insurance will cover their losses.

Here is reporter Peter Herman’s heart-wrenching account of the court’s efforts to “help” Syndor. Note the way Syndor’s crimes become “petty,” “nonviolent,” and things that “drive people crazy” in the reporter’s hands, as if he is writing about some kid bouncing a basketball against a curb, not a repeat felon breaking into people’s cars, actually committing violent crimes, and betraying an utterly frightening disregard for the law:

I first wrote about Sydnor back in February, painting the 40-year-old as the face of a problem that drives residents crazy and tourists out of the city. Day after day, police reports of car break-ins pile up from Federal Hill, around the Inner Harbor and to the far edges of Canton.

Cell phones used to be the prized catch, but now navigational devices, iPods and iPhones are all the rage, usually stolen by addicts seeking electronics to hawk for a quick buck to score a quick high, a never-ending cycle of car-to-needle-to-car that ends up costing us thousands upon thousands of dollars in increased insurance premiums, car window repairs and replacements for stolen items.

Sydnor is charged with breaking into two cars in January at a garage at 218 N. Charles St., and authorities tell me he’s suspected in other break-ins at garages at The Baltimore Sun and Mercy Medical Center on North Calvert Street. He has been in jail for the past three months awaiting word on a coveted, hard-to-get drug treatment slot, and his cases will be put on hold until he gets through the program.

Police have arrested Sydnor more than 100 times in the past 15 years and he’s been convicted dozens of times, mostly of seemingly petty, nonviolent offenses.

“Mostly of seemingly petty” offenses? What about the other ones? This isn’t journalism: it’s a mutual admiration club with three members: judge, reporter, and predator.

And these admiration clubs so frequently get out of hand, which is why I question one of the main tenets of drug court: that the judge and the offender form a relationship in which the judge takes a personal interest in the offender’s progress. Do we really need to be encouraging judges to be even more enamored of their “patriarchial/matriarchial” roles vis-a-vis criminals? Haven’t enough innocent victims of crime paid, with their lives, for these special moments of bonding, Hallelujahs, slap on the backs, and all?

Shouldn’t people like this be getting their drug and alcohol counseling in prison, as they’re serving time for their crimes?

Given how he reacted while sentencing Sydnor, the judge in this case might as well have been openly berating the public for its failure to leap to Sydnor’s aid by providing him with a bed, on demand, in a drug rehab center. Yet even a brief perusal of Sydnor’s incredibly long record indicates serial neglect on the part of Baltimore’s judiciary to protect the public from this man’s violence. In 1996, Sydnor was found guilty of assault (neither petty nor non-violent). Even though he refused to acknowledge his guilt and was found guilty, he was given only a suspended, one-year sentence — in other words, no time at all. He quickly ended up back in jail again, this time for second-degree assault, and received one year again, another example of judicial carelessness.

The record grows worse as time goes by. Drug dealing, narcotics dealing, felony theft. There are 147 separate court appearances in his record. Assault, second degree, in 2005, some 97 cases in? One month in jail. And this is what reporter Peter Hermann calls a non-violent, minor record? Have they lost their minds, or do they just despise the law-abiding public?

What do you call a 100+ time offender, appearing before Judge Lipman (who is, unsurprisingly, a former defense attorney)?

You call him a good candidate for drug court.


3 thoughts on “Mission Creep: Burglars With Drug Problems. And Drug Courts With Burglar Problems. And Reporters With Truthiness Problems.”

  1. In response to my column on the car break-in suspect, I would urge you and your readers to go back and look at this story in full. This was the third story I’ve written the suspect and was designed as a follow to earlier accounts. That might help put my supposed “sympathy” in proper perspective. In the first story, which I’ll add here, I hold him up as the prime example of what’s wrong in Baltimore — the poster-child so-to-speak of a problem of people breaking into vehicles. In the second article, I discovered that despite all his arrests, he never got into a drug treatment program or “drug court.” And since cops never linked him to more than just a handful of break-ins, the longest sentence he ever served was about one year. Yes, I argue that he should both serve time and get help — that way when he’s let out, and it’s not if he’s ever let out again, but when — he might stop committing crimes. Either authorities do a proper investigation that can put him behind bars for many years and get him off the streets or get him help so when the revolving door that keeps spitting him back out again rolls around he’s at least got a chance:

    Here’s the first story (check out http://www.baltimoresun.com/crime for others and blogs on the subject):

    Michael D. Sydnor Jr. is just one face of the alarming spate of car break-ins around downtown Baltimore.

    He’s 40 years old and until two years ago, he says, he lived rent-free with his girlfriend in an apartment on North Charles Street, though the address he provided authorities does not exist. He says he earned $11 per hour working in a stockroom at the Inner Harbor’s Hyatt Regency, but when asked the address of his employer on a court form, he put down a question mark.He’s been arrested 101 times under the name Sydnor since 1994, but he sometimes uses the last name Thomas. He’s been convicted more than 30 times for crimes that include dealing drugs and urinating in the street, and his public defender wrote in one recent court document that his “extremely long, steady addiction to drugs has fueled his criminal behavior.”

    In November 2007, a bystander saw him use a steel plumbing cap to break the driver’s side window of a car parked in the Redwood Street garage and take an iPod, a Nintendo and an ash tray. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but was back on the street in time to be arrested again in January 2008 for being disorderly.

    Again, a judge sentenced him to spend a year and a half in prison, perhaps after seeing a handwritten comment that a prosecutor scrawled in blue ink on a perfunctory document calling attention to his past transgressions. Still, Sydnor was back on the street in time to be arrested yet again, on Sunday, charged with breaking into two more cars in a downtown garage and stealing a Global Positioning System device.

    He’s in jail again awaiting trial.

    In police parlance, the crime is a “larceny from auto,” and in sheer numbers it dwarfs every other crime category in Baltimore but property damage, with more than 6,500 cases reported in the city last year. That is actually down from the more than 15,000 in 1996, when drug dealers were stealing cell phones by the thousands and reprogramming them with stolen numbers to avoid eavesdropping by police.

    Now, the hot items are iPods, iPhones and GPS devices.

    Thieves target the tens of thousands of cars parked in business districts and tourist areas. Police report that 74 vehicles were broken into in the first two weeks of this year downtown, at the Inner Harbor and in Federal Hill. The nicer the car, the nicer the stuff that might be inside. And nearly every break-in is accompanied by a broken window and a pile of shattered glass on the sidewalk.

    Baltimore police make arrests and conduct undercover stings, even putting out “bait cars” with enticing electronic devices clearly visible on seat cushions, hoping to attract a criminal. One person can be responsible for hundreds of break-ins, so a single arrest can make an impact, even if it is short-lived and the suspect never gets charged with all of the crimes.

    Tom Yeager, a retired city police major and vice president of the Downtown Partnership’s Clean and Safe Program, says that every time car break-ins spike, he searches his list of longtime suspects and finds that at least one of them just got out of jail.

    He calls car break-ins “our No. 1 big crime downtown.”

    His advice includes the obvious: Don’t leave your GPS on the front seat. (Handicapped tags, which allow the possessor to park free in the city, also are hot items, but can’t be concealed.)

    It includes the less than obvious: Leaving your cigarette lighter out of its socket shows you own an electronic device and is an invitation to break in.

    And removing the plastic arm that holds GPS or satellite radio devices and are suction-cupped to your windshield leaves a ring when you take it off – and yes, that is an invitation to break in and hunt around.

    “When you leave your car, leave it empty,” Yeager says. “There shouldn’t be anything in your car but dust.”

    The Downtown Partnership tracks car break-ins and sends representatives to court with letters describing their impact – how “piles of broken glass” serve as grim reminders about crime, how victims tell friends who tell their friends and then more and more people choose to spend their weekends anywhere but Baltimore, about costs to insurance companies and the time wasted replacing lost items and making repairs, about the aggravation.

    Nanci Gosnell found out the hard way when she brought two carloads of Cub Scouts from Bethesda to the National Aquarium this past weekend and got back to the garage and found two vehicles broken into and an iPod and a GPS missing from one. She called police, but the officer went to the wrong garage and she left believing the city to be both unsafe and unforgiving.

    Gosnell’s vehicle was broken into Friday night or early Saturday on South Street. The next day, just a few blocks away at a garage at 218 N. Charles St., a security guard for the Downtown Partnership saw a man emerge from a storage shed. He slowly steered the man to an armed guard who held him for police.

    A man visiting from Rockville approached the officer and reported that his Honda Accord parked on Level D had been broken into and a Garmin GPS Navigator worth $325 had been taken. Court documents show that the officer searched the man who had been detained and found the device in his pocket.

    Police then discovered that a Nissan Sentra also had been broken into, its glove box ransacked but nothing taken. Police charged the man they had arrested in those two break-ins.

    His name: Michael D. Sydnor Jr.

  2. The reporter and judge are both under the (very) mistaken impression that “drug treatment” resembles “water treatment,” in it’s efficacy: dirty in, clean out, a systemic, automatic process easily replicated. Nothing could be further from the truth: a 15% ‘success’ rate (resident clean for 1 year) is trumpeted to the skies if achieved by the most modern, and expensive, centers. Sydnor is a 40 yr-old addict, with probably a 20-25 yr-old habit. The chances of him making it through a year are miniscule. As a former ‘substance abuser,’ I can tell you that until the pain of his conswquneces outway the leasures of getting high, he’s going right back to it. How many smashed car windows before he’s caught this time?
    I was hoping Obama’s administration would see a general return to competence in many areas; guess it hasn’t hit the Sun or Maryland state courts.

  3. According to the on-line records available from the state of Maryland, the police have arrested and prosecutors prosecuted Sydnor for dozens of thefts and several assaults, including at least two with a deadly weapon, dating back to 1993. I didn’t spend a great deal of time perusing this enormous record, so please correct me if I’m mistaken, but here is a partial list covering a few years of the crimes for which he was charged:

    1993 — disorderly conduct
    1994 — robbery with a deadly weapon, B & E, theft, and a few lesser charges
    1996 — three thefts, two assaults, one trespass
    1997 — four thefts, two assaults, one malicious destruction property
    And so on.

    In some years, Sydnor was being picked up every 40 to 60 days, so we have to assume that he cooled his heels in a jail cell and immediately started committing crimes the moment he was released again. Yet he still received little or no time for any of these charges, even after his sheet grew to 20, 30, 40 crimes. What were the judges thinking?

    This list doesn’t even get into his many charges for possession, intent to distribute, conspiracy and manufacturing cocaine and opiates.

    In a sane world, breaking into a person’s car would get you at least a year in jail — it’s a crime that takes place in semi-public places and thus can easily escalate if the car’s owner encounters the felon — and perhaps the assaults here involved thefts when Sydnor was caught in the act. And what about breaking into more than a dozen cars? This is why legislatures were forced to take away judicial independence in sentencing by implementing three-strikes rules: judges abused their privilege and ignored public safety, again and again and again, often with fatal results.

    Sydnor committed crimes while armed — a murder waiting to happen. His fits of malicious destruction of property; his alleged substance abuse; his propensity for disregarding the law; his assaults; his weapons — this guy is dangerous. What, precisely, would he have had to do to get some judge in Baltimore to finally decide to put him away for more than a few weeks?

    It is a reflection of the craziness that passes for routine in our courts that this man was not sent away for a long time: clearly, the only thing that prevents him from committing crimes is being behind bars. It’s simply ridiculous to claim that the “problem” is a lack of drug treatment — he can receive that in jail.

    The real problem is that Michael D. Sydnor experienced no consequences for his many, many criminal acts. This isn’t the fault of the police who arrested him over and over again. It isn’t the fault of the prosecutors who tried to convict him. It isn’t the fault of a public that wasted, probably, hundreds of thousands of dollars to arrest, contain and convict Sydnor while paying for his counsel as well, while he stole from people and used that money to purchase drugs for his own enjoyment. Doubtlessly, he also availed himself of public resources in the form of free medical care, housing, food, utilities and care for his children, if he has any. We have subsidized every moment of this thug’s life, and yet, at the end of the day, your only complaint is that we don’t provide him with community-based rehabilitation?

    You point fingers at everyone except Sydnor.

    I don’t understand that mindset.

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