The city’s new top prosecutor Gregg Bernstein, who proposed tougher legal treatment of violent offenders while on the campaign trail, was sworn in Jan. 3 during a private official event.

Bernstein, who is White, won the city’s state’s attorney position after unseating longtime Black incumbent Patricia Jessemy in the heated Democratic primary. He went unopposed in the General Election.

At a public, ceremonial swearing-in Jan. 4, the former federal prosecutor pledged to build a better relationship with police and restructure the State’s Attorney’s Office to “aggressively” prosecute violent offenders. “Despite great strides in the last few years,” Bernstein said, “we must change the way we do business so that we can successfully target, prosecute, and convict the violent offenders who continue to harm our neighbors and neighborhoods. The season for promises… is over, and the time for performance and action is about to begin.”

The great strides he mentions include a steady decline in violent crime for at least the last three years. City officials reported 223 homicides in 2010, the lowest count since 1985. Juvenile homicides and shootings are down 35 percent and overall gun crime down 16 percent over last year. Yet Bernstein and other city leaders understand more must be done for Baltimore residents to feel safe.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who attended Bernstein’s swearing-in, said at a separate event that the reduced numbers are “not a cause for a celebration, but a call for further action.”

“I believe with the help of the Maryland General Assembly, we can…continue reducing gun violence to historic lows,” she said.

She plans to lobby two bills that would create tougher penalties for gun offenders. The first would require all defendants arrested with an illegal, loaded firearm to serve a minimum of 18 months in jail. The second would allow judges to sentence repeat gun offenders to five to15 years.

Police Commissioner Bealefield supports the legislation and notes that almost half of homicide suspects in 2010 had prior gun arrests, but on average, served only four months in jail. The criminal courts suspend 82 percent of gun cases, he added.

Bernstein, with Bealefield’s endorsement, has promised to tighten the grip on these offenders through prosecution. But he denies his method will prompt a “no-tolerance” attitude leading to excessive jailing for minor offenses.

“We will not treat all crimes, and those who are accused, alike,” he said at the swearing-in. “We will continue to take advantage of existing programs and alternatives to incarceration, and look for new methods to partner with the public, private and faith-based organizations that treat and rehabilitate individuals whose behavior may be the result of severe drug addiction or poverty. I will work with organizations that help to put people back on the path to healthier lives, more stable families, and good-paying jobs and achieve the best possible outcomes for all involved.”

Bernstein hired a brand new leadership team to begin an internal audit of the State’s Attorney’s Office, which he said had a “small lack of leadership and direction.” His staff includes former assistant U.S. attorney George J. Hazel, former assistant state’s attorney Elizabeth Embry and former secretary for the state’s Budget and Management Cecilia Januszkiewicz. Mark Cheshire, former AFRO reporter and speechwriter for Mayor Sheila Dixon, will reportedly serve as communications director.

In a statement, Bernstein said his team “share(s) my vision to restructure the State’s Attorney’s Office to focus on the prosecution and conviction of violent offenders and improve training, technology and cooperation with law enforcement.

“I look forward to beginning our work together to make Baltimore a safer city and get violent criminals off our streets.”

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO