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"It's Child Abuse"

Mecklenburg County knows how to grow criminals

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The average person might wonder what would lead Antonio Deron Pruitt, 19, and Juan Lawrence, 22, to believe they could get away with popping a cap into each other -- or any other passerby who happened to get caught in the crossfire during their rolling gun battle on North Tryon Street last week.

From their points of view, it was probably very logical. If you'd amassed a criminal record -- or rather, a record of dismissed criminal charges -- the length of those of Pruitt and Lawrence, getting away with shooting someone in public might seem logical to you, too.

As is often the case when I pull criminal records of the latest person to blow someone away in Mecklenburg County, the records of these two men contained multiple auto-theft, assault, assault-with-a-deadly-weapon, drug and gun charges. Almost all were followed by the same three words: "dismissed by DA." Combined, the two men served less than six months jail time on the few charges they were actually convicted of.

"Wow," said the clerk at the county courthouse as his printer spit out the records.

According to statistics just released by the North Carolina Court System, Mecklenburg County once again ranked among the three best counties in the state to commit a crime and get away with it. Last year, our desperately underfunded prosecutor's office dismissed half the charges brought against suspected criminals in the county, and that's after declining to charge suspects in a third of the cases police brought to district attorneys.

Only two other counties in the state have a 50-percent dismissal rate. Of the 21 states that keep searchable records, North Carolina now has the highest felony dismissal rate -- 30 percent -- according to a study released in 2003 by the National Center for State Courts. That means Mecklenburg is one of the three highest dismissal-rate counties in the highest dismissal-rate state, a stunning national achievement the Charlotte Chamber won't be including in its promotional packets.

By just about any measure, our courts lag desperately behind the rest of the nation, forcing frazzled, underpaid prosecutors to dismiss or plead down more cases than they should have to. According to a 2001 Justice Department study, prosecutors' offices serving populations of a similar size to ours have budgets nearly twice the size of the $3.4 million budget our DA's office gets by on -- and nearly twice the staff.

Young people such as Lawrence and Pruitt, who have been victimizing people since their early teens, probably haven't laid eyes on these reports and studies. But their grasp of the statistics is almost eerie. A few months ago, I overheard a remarkable conversation among a group of middle and high school-aged kids in my transitioning neighborhood who didn't realize I was listening to them through my screen door.

"You don't get shit for felonies," one kid said, a sentiment seconded by the rest of the group, who thought this was funny.

One kid said he knew a guy who killed someone and got away with it. Another kid said his cousin knew someone like that, too. A third kid said he knew someone who gunned down a man and got eight years. He'd heard of someone else who got 12 years for the same crime.

These are kids talking, sure, but for murder in Mecklenburg County, that's about right. Charges in 31 percent of the 55 murder cases prosecutors handled last year were dismissed, according to state statistics. In another 56 percent of the cases, the murder charges were pleaded down, which is why sentences of fewer than 15 years for murder are common here. Just four defendants of the 55 were actually sentenced "as charged," which means they were the only ones whose charges weren't pleaded down to lesser charges (carrying less prison time), or dismissed.

Public officials aren't fooling anyone with their sometimes-up, sometimes-down crime statistics. Kids on the edge know exactly where we draw the line here -- we draw it so far over the cliff that by the time kids finally hit it, it's too late to do anything for them or the victims they take with them.

In this case, it was Lawrence who went over the edge. Police found him lying in a pool of his own blood in someone's front yard. He later died on the operating table. Pruitt's in jail, charged with the murder. Perhaps if someone had said "no" along the way; if somewhere between the assault and auto-theft charges, Lawrence and Pruitt had done some real jail time, things may have turned out differently.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Sergeant Brenda Jones, who works in auto theft, sees these kids when they're young and racking up their first few dismissals on charges of stealing cars.

"It's child abuse," she told me earlier this year.

State legislators apparently are too busy complying with FBI subpoenas and funding multi-million dollar teapot museums to be bothered with inconsequential details like our court system. Local politicians must do something about this now, whether it involves a full court press on the legislature or coming up with millions to fund it ourselves.

Sure, these politicians may not give any more of a rip about crime victims than they did a year ago, but I know they'd hate if the next Tryon Street shootout makes national news.

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