State asked to fund court, prosecutors Schmoke says city will push the issue

November 05, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Saying Baltimore's courts and prosecutors were "overburdened," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that the city would make a "big push" during the 1994 General Assembly to have the state begin to phase-in a takeover of the Baltimore Circuit Court and city state's attorney's office.

"With Baltimore sending half the inmates into the state system, we've got have the best possible operation of our criminal court system. It's an overburdened system. I would like our system well-funded, well-run. We can't do it all by ourselves," Mr. Schmoke said at his weekly news briefing.

Mr. Schmoke noted that proposals for a state takeover of the city Circuit Court and state's attorney's office, which have a combined budget of about $20 million, have failed in the past. But the mayor said that the city was prepared to make the issue a priority next year and suggested that a three- to four-year phase-in of the takeover could make it more politically palatable.

Paige W. Boinest, a spokeswoman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said the governor was sympathetic to the mayor's proposal for a state takeover and did not rule out consideration of a phased-in takeover of the state's attorney's office. But she said the governor was worried about the financial implications of the takeovers of both courts and prosecutors' offices around the state.

"You can't just take over one jurisdiction, you'd have to take over the entire statewide system. The price tag on that would be $60 million. That's a significant price tag," she said.

Mr. Schmoke's push for the state takeover is his latest effort to deal with the city's seemingly intractable violent crime problem.

The mayor has begun community policing and budgeted for an additional 180 officers. He has also asked the Police Department to step up its recruitment and training of officers and is searching for a new police commissioner.

Yesterday, Mr. Schmoke announced that he had approved the purchase of infra-red tracking devices to be placed on the Police Department's four helicopters to help detect gunmen who have fled crime scenes. The devices, which have been used on an experimental basis on two police choppers, work by picking up heat given off by recently fired weapons. The devices cost a minimum of $55,000 each, according to the Police Department. But the mayor said, "They're very effective. It's worth the cost."

The increased funding the state could provide for the city Circuit Court and state's attorney's office could help in the fight against violent crime by reducing the number of cases that have to be plea-bargained, Mr. Schmoke said. Plea bargains typically result shorter sentences.

All of the state's attorney's offices and Circuit Courts are divisions of the state judicial system. But except for the salaries of the Circuit Court judges and court clerks, which are paid by the state, their operations have traditionally been funded by local jurisdictions.

Mr. Schmoke said that although city circuit judges have opposed a state takeover in the past, he now believes "that climate has changed, that they really understand the need for improvements in the system, and the city alone can't fund those improvements."

But Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, said yesterday that judges remain opposed to the idea of a takeover because "it takes away from the independence of the court."

But lawmakers were split yesterday on how the General Assembly would receive a proposal for even a phased-in takeover of the Circuit Court and state's attorney's office.

Sen. John A. Pica, D-Baltimore, head of the city's Senate delegation, said a state takeover is more acceptable to many legislators outside the city than merely increasing funding and added, "It can be done."

But Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, the House minority leader, said she had "very mixed feelings" about the proposal, adding, "From a practical standpoint, there isn't any money in the state budget."

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