Rhode Island Takes Aim At Criminals Using Guns, Setting Up a Special Court

IT looks like any normal courtroom: square-jawed bailiff off to one side, chairs lined neatly in the jury box, black-robed judge behind the bench.

Yet the cases heard in this wood-paneled room make it a hall of justice with a twist. They all involve guns.

Courtroom five at the Rhode Island Superior Court in this salt-scented city is the nation's latest experiment in trying to crack down on gun crimes.

In an unusual and controversial effort, authorities have set up the nation's first ``gun court'' - aimed at getting tough on illegal gunplay by speeding firearms cases through the legal system.

The court has broad political backing and, surprisingly, the support of the powerful gun lobby. But some critics consider it a publicity stunt and a waste of money.

``It skews the resources of the criminal justice system to assign one judge to just gun cases,'' says Jack Barense, a local public defender. ``If they all go to him, it means other cases go slower.''

How well it does or doesn't work will help determine whether the idea is adopted elsewhere. Authorities in at least three states - Texas, Illinois, and Louisiana - are interested in the experiment, and others are looking on.

The court, now in its first month of operation, is the idea of Providence Mayor Vincent Cianci. It was approved with broad bipartisan support in the state legislature, aided in part by the shooting death in February of a Providence police officer.

``The word is out,'' says Mr. Cianci, who is up for reelection next month. ``Fool around with a gun in this city, and you're going to jail.''

Putting some steel behind these words is the man who presides over the new court, Justice John Bourcier. He was appointed by the Superior Court's presiding judge, Joseph Rodgers.

While regarded as one of the state's finest jurists, Justice Bourcier is better known as one of its toughest. His penchant for stiff penalties (he once sentenced a repeat murderer to death, despite Rhode Island's lack of a death penalty) has earned him the nickname ``Maximum John.''

In its first three weeks of operation, the court dispensed with 18 cases, some as old as two years. The tally: one innocent, one dismissal, 16 sentences.

Sitting in his chambers, the affable Bourcier talks about his 21 years on the bench, and makes a case for the court in which he officiates. ``In some parts of the Far East, if you steal something, they'll cut your wrist off,'' he says. ``In these countries, there are very few people with one wrist.''

According to Bourcier, unconventional measures like the gun court are compasses for a legal system that has lost its way. Ninety-seven percent of defendants in gun crimes in Rhode Island plea bargain, he says, and most are freed after serving only one-third of their sentence.

IN addition, Bourcier cites a recent Rhode Island study that found only 11 percent of all gun-crime perpetrators spend more than two years in prison, and many of them don't even bother to show up for trial.

The goals of the gun court are twofold, Bourcier says: to reduce the number of gun cases altogether, and to make sure guilty people go to prison. The court is required to hear cases within 60 days of the completion of preliminary paperwork.

``Guns are the thing creating the most panic right now,'' he says. ``It seems every murder, every police officer killed, every serious robbery involves a gun. Right now people want law and order and that's what we're giving them.''

The court has the backing of both local gun-control groups and the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA, in fact, contributed $10,000 to help set the court up, because, officials say, it fights gun crimes by targeting people who use guns unlawfully, not by punishing all gun owners.

Ironically, the gun court has sprung up at a time when crime in the city of Providence is actually decreasing. In March, an article in Parade Magazine declared Providence the second-safest city in America, next to Honolulu.

Some observers have questioned whether the court will be worth the $300,000 the city of Providence has invested in it. With a backlog of only 63 pending cases ready for trial, they say, the judge may wind up with a lot of free time, and each trial could cost the city as much as $5,000.

Mr. Barense says the assignment of Bourcier means those who commit violent crimes by other means are guaranteed to face a more lenient jurist.

``The gun court is unfair to a lot of people,'' says Richard Corley of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. ``It is unfair to victims of sex assault and the families of those people, to people killed with knives, and to the people accused of these things. What has happened is that the mayor of Providence has been able to buy a judge to hear the cases he wants heard.''

According to Barense, the court is a political ploy that is clogging up prisons by attacking an exaggerated problem. ``It seems to me to be an attempt to make voters think you're doing something about crime,'' he says. ``Most of my clients use knives, anyway.''

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