Budget cuts, drugs hurt city courts

October 16, 1990|By Raymond L. Sanchez | Raymond L. Sanchez,Evening Sun Staff Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this story.

A flood of drug cases combined with tight budget restraints threatens to cripple Baltimore's court system, says the administrative judge of the city Circuit Court.

Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan warns that, in order to survive under the city's proposed $6.3 million budget appropriation, the court would have to stop paying jurors and eliminate its community services division, eliminate juvenile court masters or get rid of HTC the court's medical services division.

Kaplan also said yesterday that the court system would not have the estimated $78,000 needed for staff support for a newly created judgeship to handle felony cases. The city's court system is funded jointly by the city and the state, and from federal government grants.

"It could come to the point where the city is going to have to make the decision whether to stop cutting checks" for court personnel, Kaplan told a committee of the Baltimore City Bar Association looking into the drug crisis and under-funding of courts.

The city should not expect any help from the state, Gov. William Donald Schaefer said today.

"It's a tight time right now," Schaefer said, referring to the state's own budget overruns, which are now estimated to reach as much as $270 million.

Schaefer said he went through similar judicial budget crunches when he was mayor of Baltimore.

"We brought everybody together and solved the problem," Schaefer said. "Everybody wants somebody else to do it. It's the city's responsibility."

Kaplan's was only one voice in a chorus of high-ranking court and prison officials who testified yesterday before the 10-member lawyers panel, which plans to release in January a report on the effects of the drug crisis on the criminal justice system.

Speaker after speaker, including Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms and Maryland Public Defender Stephen E. Harris, described how a high volume of narcotics cases, staffing shortages and dwindling government money are contributing to "judicial gridlock."

For years, the desire of the city has been a state takeover of operations of the court system and the state's attorney's office. Citing priorities in areas such as education, the city has asked the court here to trim more than $1 million from its budget request of $7.3 million.

"You can't absorb a million dollars in a $6 million budget . . . without reducing services," Kaplan said. Compounding the court's money crunch are about $885,000 in city-approved personnel expenses and salary increases, including 6 percent pay raises for court personnel totaling $282,000 and $97,000 over two years for pay increases for the court's juvenile masters.

Tracy Brown, director of the Mayor's Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice, told the panel that the court's problems demonstrated the necessity of a state takeover of court funding.

Baltimore lawyer George L. Russell, chairman of the bar association committee, said of the court system's woes: "This situation is critical, a very dire crisis. . . . The committee believes the court requires a much higher priority."

In an Oct. 1 letter to Kaplan, city Finance Director William R. Brown Jr. urged "creativity and imagination in looking at how the Circuit Court conducts its operations."

In letters to city budget officials, Kaplan has spelled out which services he would need to cut in order to meet the $1 million budget shortfall and keep the courts open. He has mentioned eliminating administrative office, community service and medical service personnel. This option would save the court more than $1 million, but would force each of the 24 judges to become an administrator, and would eliminate community service work programs and all psychiatric and psychological testing for defendants.

The administrative judge also proposed the possible elimination of seven of the court's eight juvenile masters and 21 staff positions to save $1.1 million. Kaplan said this would "cripple the juvenile justice system and greatly endanger the public."

Another option the judge noted was halting payments to jurors, a total of $667,000 a year, and abolishing the community services divisions at a savings of $280,000.

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