Amid criticism that plea bargains have hit an all-time low, Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti has been replaced as head of the felony arraignment court.
Administrative Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan yesterday confirmed that Angeletti would no longer handle felony arraignments.
Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson will take over the arraignment court when Angeletti returns from vacation Wednesday, Kaplan said.
Angeletti, 53, will continue to supervise the court's felony docket and he will serve as a trial judge and handle Johnson's docket, Kaplan added.
The 19 plea agreements reached in nearly 400 felony cases in September -- a 4.8 percent plea rate -- was the lowest in nearly 10 years. Rumors that Kaplan planned to replace Angeletti have been circulating in legal circles for weeks. Kaplan said he met with Angeletti last week to discuss the move.
"I said, 'Ed, we have to try something else,' " Kaplan said he told Angeletti, adding: "I've been watching the figures pretty closely and I've been the person receiving the complaints. When [the plea rate] finally hit 4.8, that was the straw that broke the camel's back."
Called the busiest court in the state, the felony arraignment court handles every defendant charged with a major crime in the city in addition to defendants who want their bails reduced and those who have violated probation.
With a yearly average of 5,000 felony cases in the city courts, felony arraignment court gives prosecutors and defense lawyers a chance to strike deals. The goal is to ease the burden on the trial courts. But the number of pleas at arraignment have decreased steadily since late last year -- from 16 percent last December to 4.8 percent in September.
Angeletti, who is vacationing out of town, could not be reached to comment on the move.
Defense lawyers and some prosecutors say Angeletti has had too little time to discuss pleas. In addition to arraignments, for instance, Angeletti handles the move court, where scheduling requests are heard and cases are sent to other courts.
"He's probably the hardest working judge in the courthouse," said defense lawyer Michael Kaminkow, who last month told a city bar association panel that it was time for a "fresh face" in felony arraignment court.
"Arraignments have become nothing more than an administrative process for people to file a bunch of papers," a veteran prosecutor said. "Arraignment court has become a place where you come in, take a trial date and get out."
As a result, an increasing number of defendants are accepting plea bargains in trial courts. Critics are quick to point to the past when Judge Edgar P. Silver presided over arraignment court. Silver, who has retired, sat in chambers with lawyers and hammered out plea bargains. But unlike Angeletti, Silver did not handle move court daily.
"With Silver there was a dialogue," said a veteran of the public defender's office who did not want to be named. "The way Angeletti ran the court, there was no dialogue prior to the case being called. A guy walks out of the lockup into court and the defendant's lawyer says the state is offering you five years. You want to take it or not? There's no dialogue."
Kaplan agreed that perhaps Angeletti was juggling too many responsibilities, although he said that Angeletti has maintained he could handle it.
"It could be a matter being burned out in the court," Kaplan said. "After a while that stuff gets to you. . . and you don't push any more. You lose some aggressiveness."
Some defense lawyers and prosecutors say Johnson is known for giving defendants long suspended sentences with probation and throwing the book at them if they come before him again. Based on Johnson's record, they were unsure if his appointment would result in more plea bargains.
"Johnson has a history of generally accepting the state attorney's recommendation," a lawyer in the public defender's office said. Some times, "he undercuts the [state's] recommendation by increasing the sentence and placing the client on probation. People are going to turn down pleas. How could you recommend to your client to set himself up?"
Kaplan said the decision to consolidate the felony arraignment and move courts was a money-saving move implemented in 1988 shortly after Silver retired and Angeletti replaced him.
"We got to find out whether it's the judge or the program," Kaplan said of the problems plaguing arraignment court. "We cannot devote the kind of resources that we ourselves, the state's attorney and the public defender are devoting to something that isn't producing."