Grand Jury Chides District Court Commissioner System

March 07, 1991|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

A county grand jury asked to review the District Court commissioner system released a report yesterday calling for commissioners to review the backgrounds of those arrested more thoroughly before setting their bond or releasing them.

The grand jury also recommended the formation of a task force, including the county executive, to study thematter further, but that suggestion was met with a cool response by the chief judge of the District Court, who pointed out that the commissioner system is in effect statewide.

Robert F. Sweeney, chief judge of the District Court for the state, also questioned other points raised by the grand jury, including asuggestion that commissioners be required to hold parole and probation violators until information on them is received from state parole and probation officials.

Only days after being sworn in for a six-month term last September, the grand jury was asked by County State'sAttorney Frank R. Weathersbee to review the "interaction of the various elements of the criminal justice system as they relate to the arrest and release of individuals on probation or parole."

In making his request, Weathersbee made it clear he was unhappy with a commissioner who, citing a lack of probable cause for arrest, released a Davidsonville man arrested by Annapolis police on a charge of breaking into a car and stealing a woman's purse.

The man, Steven Gregory Anderson, was charged two days later with first-degree murder in the slaying of Gwyn Dixon Criswell, a 41-year-old mother of two whose body was found in the woods behind the Crofton Library. District Court officials have refused to discuss the Anderson case.

In September, Weathersbee said that although the Anderson case triggered his letter tothe grand jury foreman, "I have observed over my career that very often individuals go before a commissioner and are released, and I wonder why."

As part of a report on conditions in jails and prisons routinely released at the end of a grand jury session, the panel said the commissioners should place a greater emphasis on accuracy and thoroughness, despite the volume of cases they handle.

Sweeney said hewas happy with the report, adding, "The absence of any detailed criticism or blanket criticism was pleasing to me."

Sweeney went on tosay that some of the grand jury's ideas -- such as the suggestion tohold parole and probation violators -- would require legislation that would almost certainly be bitterly opposed by correctional officials. He estimated that of the 150,000 to 160,000 people arrested each year, 15,000 to 20,000 are parole or probation violators, and he said jails in the state would lack the space to hold them.

"What seemedto this very fine group of citizens to be a very good idea may be more complicated than they thought," Sweeney said.

The grand jury also called for the formation of a task force to study the District Court commissioner system and said County Executive Robert R. Neall should chair the panel, or at least be on it, because "he should be awareof some of the shortcomings of the system, since that system impactshis constituents."

Pointing out that the commissioner system is in use statewide, not just in Anne Arundel County, Sweeney said the idea of a local task force has "no merit." He said he would, however, be willing to discuss possible improvements to the system with a groupsuch as the Governor's Office for Justice Assistance.

In additionto urging commissioners to hold parole and probation violators, the grand jury said commissioners should routinely check with parole and probation officials for background information on suspects. The report says a state parole official said she could not recall receiving a request from commissioners for this type of information, and she saidher department had a wealth of information on defendants.

The grand jury report also noted that commissioners are often distracted from their primary job of presiding over a suspect's initial court appearance by administrative chores as mundane as answering the telephone.

The grand jury also questioned the effectiveness of on-the-job-training received by new commissioners, but Judge Sweeney said he hires five or six commissioners a month, not enough to justify a full-time training school.

The commissioner system was established to streamline the judicial process by providing people arrested quick initial hearings instead of forcing them to wait for probable cause or bailhearings.

Arrestees are normally taken to a police station, wherethey are booked and fingerprinted. Then they are driven to District Court to see a commissioner, who reviews the charges. The commissioner can release the person if he rules police had insufficient cause for arrest, set bail or release a person on recognizance to await trial.

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