David Warren, the subject of my column — online now, in print this coming week — has to be one of the most successful defendants in recent Maryland history. His record of arrest for crimes of violence is extensive, and yet the state has only a couple of convictions to show for it. Last Tuesday, the law finally caught up to him, but in Baltimore County, not the city, and the jurisdiction of his crime might have made the difference. Warren and his attorney might have decided that, even with circumstantial evidence, a guilty verdict from a jury in the county was more likely than one in the city. Whatever the reasoning, Warren entered guilty pleas to assault and a firearms charge while the state dropped an attempted murder charge. His sentence was 25 years for the assault, with all but 10 suspended, and 5 years concurrent for the gun charge. The judge in the case, the Honorable Robert E. Cahill Jr., did not have much to say about the matter. He merely reviewed the plea agreement, accepted it and imposed sentence. I think, given Warren’s extensive record of contact with law enforcement, the judge might have used the opportunity to admonish the guy, with words to this effect:
Mr. Warren, you won’t be eligible for parole for five years. Please use that time to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. You are 27 years old now, and don’t have much to show for it besides a long record of arrests. To quote a poem by Mary Oliver: ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’
I heard a judge, Gale E. Rasin, quote that poem to defendants. It’s entirely appropriate for a judge to lecture a repeat offender, and I wonder why more of them don’t take advantage of their authority to do so.
Let’s acknowledge what we’ve learned over the years. The most troubled young men in Baltimore are children of poverty, victims of poor or abusive parenting or no parenting; they failed in school, and many became the easy targets for gang recruitment. By the time they stand before judges for sentencing, it’s either too late to change them — that’s the dark view of it — or there’s little that we offer them in the way of rehabilitation in prison. I believe the latter is the problem: We took correction out of corrections long ago, even before the period of mass incarceration overwhelmed what rehabilitative services state and federal prison systems could offer. I wrote about this recently, after a teenager in Baltimore County received a life sentence for the death of a police officer. For sure, prison is for punishment. But, given that people like David Warren — in fact, the vast majority of inmates — eventually get out, shouldn’t all efforts of the government be focused on changing lives to reduce repeat offenses? Isn’t that the best use of our tax dollars? Our whole system would have to change in a radical way — it would need to be far more therapeutic than punitive — to make any difference in the future. Ask yourself: What’s holding us back from that radical change? Fear? Racism? Bureaucratic lethargy? Public officials too unwilling or too nervous to take up the cause?
You could look at Warren’s record as a long series of failed opportunities to get convictions. I have a different view. I look at his first arrest for a violent crime — when he was 14 — and wonder why someone didn’t intervene, early and intensely, in Warren’s life to get him on a different track. At some point, there must have been an opportunity for a course correction. There is now, again, with his no-parole-for-five-years sentence. But will anyone sit and talk to him? Will anyone work, from the start, to prepare him for a successful return to society? Will anyone even ask what he plans to do with the rest of his wild and precious life?