City losing drug war and justice, lawyers warn Bar panel says lack of funds may cut prosecutors

December 28, 1990|By Raymond L. Sanchez | Raymond L. Sanchez,Evening Sun Staff

Waves of narcotics cases and the financial woes of the criminal justice system are causing Baltimore to lose its war on illegal drugs, says a report to be released today by a committee of city lawyers.

The 54-page report concludes that dwindling government funds have left the system incapable of dealing with a dramatic increase in drug cases.

"The public must be alerted that the war on drugs is being lost," the report says. "Not only is a whole generation or more lost, but the entire justice system in Baltimore city."

The lawyers found that:

* A $1.3 million budget shortfall could force Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms to lay off 21 prosecutors and six clerical workers by July.

* Budget cuts have prevented the public defender's office from referring cases to private counsel when a potential conflict might exist and to stop employing expert witnesses. With the prospect of additional cuts, Maryland Public Defender Stephen E. Harris has considered laying off as many as 40 of his 225 lawyers statewide.

* The City Jail, facing a projected $2.8 million shortfall in next year's budget, could be forced to lay off 50 correctional officers and clerical workers and eliminate many programs.

* Of $7 million in federal funds that went to fight drugs in Maryland last year, only $200,000 reached Baltimore because the city lacked matching funds.

* Baltimore Circuit Court may be unable to try civil cases in three to five years. Courts now used for civil proceedings would be used to accommodate the large number of criminal cases. In order to meet its budget shortfall, the court may also eliminate some of its programs, such as medical services and the community services division.

* More than 5 percent of the city's population, perhaps as many as 50,000 people, are under some form of court supervision or probation. Half of Maryland's prison population was sentenced in Baltimore.

The committee, chaired by George L. Russell Jr., sought to find short-term solutions, including emergency state funds for jurisdictions with the most drug cases.

Among the committee's recommendations are that the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services take over operation of the City Jail; the state take over the state's attorney's office and the Circuit Court; and the city designate drug-forfeiture money as a source of matching funds for criminal-justice grants.

David W. Skeen, president of the Bar Association of Baltimore City, brought the nine-member committee together last summer to examine the impact of drugs on the justice system. The panel plans to report its recommendations to the governor and legislature.

"This is a very desperate situation," said Russell, a former city Circuit Court judge. "And the public interest simply cries out for some kind of remedy. This problem is not isolated to Baltimore. It's going to spill over."

In Baltimore, the report said, about 90 percent of all felony prosecutions are drug-related, including 55 percent of the city's murders. More than 50 percent of drug arrests statewide occur in Baltimore.

Still, the committee found that Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in the state with no drug treatment program in its jail.

"To simply house these offenders at great expense is a short-sighted and, ultimately, a prohibitively expensive and self-defeating approach to the problem," the report says. "To perpetuate an underfunded, ineffective, hurried and, on occasion, unfair criminal justice system for which those subject to the system have no respect, is little better than having no system at all."

The pinch of budget cuts spans the justice system. The state's attorney's office needs about six new prosecutors but can't get the city to pay for them. The public defender's office plans to tighten eligibility standards, making an estimated 500 to 1,000 defendants ineligible for a public defender while unable to hire private counsel. Each lawyer in the felony section of the public defender's office handles more than 400 cases a year. (The American Bar Association standard is 150 felony cases.)

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