Schmoke's City Jail Failure

August 16, 1991

No matter how he tries to sidestep it, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke cannot avoid responsibility for the incompetence now being uncovered at the Baltimore city jail. During his administration, problems at the jail mushroomed. Only after intense prodding did the city take steps to improve matters. Still, human lives have been altered. At least 93 individuals have been held for months without trial dates; one poor soul was imprisoned for 396 days without any formal charges against him.

That is a disgrace. It mocks this country's concept of justice. Mr. Schmoke, as a former two-term state's attorney, certainly should have realized this -- and done something about it.

Instead, the mayor delayed making improvements at the jail while calling for a state takeover. A much-needed expansion, funded by the state, never got off the ground, thanks to the Schmoke administration's intransigence. Only when a federal judge stepped in were changes made -- with a big assist from the state.

Under the mayor's leadership, problems at the jail multiplied -- escapes, mistaken identities, deficient medical care and a proliferation of drug use among inmates. Not until the state took over on July 1 did matters start to stabilize.

LaMont Flanagan, who runs the jail and the state's pre-trial detention units, immediately ordered a review of jail records and discovered a nightmarish situation. One man has been held since early March without a trial date -- for two traffic violations. Martin R. Henn, a homeless man arrested over a year ago on arson and malicious destruction charges, was simply forgotten by the criminal justice system. He languished in the jail until state officials discovered his presence.

There's no excuse for such bureaucratic ineptitude. Even with the jail's overcrowding problems and the backlog of cases facing the state's attorney's office, such human tragedies should not -- happen -- especially in an age of computerized record-keeping. Mr. Flanagan hopes to install a computerized fingerprint system to avoid some of these problems. Other mix-ups can be averted simply through better management.

It's already clear that the jail is in far better hands with the state than it was under the Schmoke administration. Future jail crises are no longer the mayor's concern. But the city faces potentially costly law suits stemming from these illegal confinements -- a liability that a good manager should have been able to avoid.

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