Attorneys for lockup lacking

April 14, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Designed as a high-tech jail for streamlining criminal justice, the state's new Central Booking and Intake Facility may open this year without a key ingredient to unclog the system: the legal staff to drop shaky cases early.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said yesterday that her office has no money to put prosecutors in the $54 million jail, set to open this summer with 811 beds and an efficient "team" approach to processing criminals.

As envisioned, the prosecutors were to review arrests shortly after police made them, so that marginal cases could be thrown out early and those arrested who would never be convicted could go home. Prosecutors often do not review charges brought by police until shortly before a trial date 30 days later -- and then often drop or reduce the charges.

Mrs. Jessamy said she thought the state was to pay for attorneys to staff the jail seven days a week, because early prosecutorial review would save state taxpayers from paying for expensive jail beds for defendants whose cases later are dismissed.

"My position is that they just have another prison facility now," Mrs. Jessamy said. "We had a lot of wonderful expectations . . . but I guess it's not going to happen."

The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services did ask last fall for $450,000 for prosecutors and $550,000 for public defenders. But the request never made it into the budget submitted by then Gov. William Donald Schaefer. A spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the request was not made again when the new administration took over in January.

Mrs. Jessamy said she learned that just last week.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the department, said yesterday: "We recognize the importance of participation on the part of all players in the team, and we are trying to work out a compromise."

Of 31,000 criminal cases filed in Baltimore City District Court between June 1993 and June 1994, 18,200 -- about 59 percent -- were dropped or tabled or the defendants were found not guilty.

The problem is a costly one for taxpayers -- who must foot the daily bill to keep defendants behind bars who cannot make bail -- and for defendants who turn out to be innocent.

The state Baltimore City Detention Center, bursting at the seams with more than 3,000 inmates awaiting trial or serving short sentences, is so chronically crowded that an attorney for prisoners there has asked that its top official be held in contempt of court for violating a federal court order governing population limits. Some prisoners from the jail have been spending nights in city police lockups -- designated by the court as "emergency" housing -- for months.

"This is a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face," said Timothy F. Maloney, a former Prince George's County legislator and longtime supporter of the central booking concept.

"The entire original concept of centralized booking was to permit prosecutors to weed out, within hours of the arrest, those cases that obviously had no merit," said Judge Robert F. Sweeney, who oversees the state district court system.

"If the city is not going to be able to do that, they're wasting a golden opportunity to ease pressures on the jail, to have citizens at liberty that ultimately would be found not guilty."

With construction nearly completed, the building, 800 feet long and 100 feet wide, towers like a huge mausoleum over the Jones Falls Expressway, at the corner of East Madison Street and the Fallsway next to the 19th-century city jail. It will siphon off some of the detention center's population. Prison officials say they expect the booking facility to open in mid- to late summer.

The one-stop booking approach will eventually eliminate the need for city police lockups and is expected to free police, now occupied with finishing paperwork and transporting prisoners, to patrol the streets instead.

Next month, the Department of Public Safety hopes to install equipment that will take fingerprints electronically, matching them with computerized criminal case files elsewhere, and a data system to update police, court and correctional records with just a few keystrokes.

Said Judge Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt, administrative judge of Baltimore's District Court: "Here's this modern building with all the equipment in the world, and this human element would make such a difference."

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