Try Them When You Arrest Them

July 12, 1995

Lamont Flanagan, commissioner of the Baltimore City Detention Center, has a box full of makeshift weapons that guards confiscated after a riot almost broke out last month. Inmates in the exercise yard were carrying pieces of sharpened glass and cast-off metal with cloth wrapped around them as handles. Tensions are still high. And they will remain so unless better solutions are found to reduce overcrowding.

Jail officials are under federal court order to keep the detention center population at 2,933 inmates. Most days this summer, however, there have been at least 3,147 prisoners inside the jail. Prisoners are sleeping in the jail's gyms, in day rooms, almost anywhere you can put a mattress. Another 299 are being held at police lock-ups and other facilities and 309 inmates sleep each night in a completed wing of the new central booking facility that is still under construction.

The longer the situation continues, the more likely state prison officials will be found in violation of the federal court order.

Using the new booking facility as overflow space may work as a short-term solution this summer. There have been construction delays; until all of its state-of-the-art equipment is installed, it can't fulfill its mission anyway. Plans are to use another 400 beds within it next month when they become available. But eventually it will be time to use the booking facility as it was planned. What will happen to the jail population then?

If the right steps are taken, the number of inmates will decline. Electronic fingerprint scanning, digitized mug shots, computerized criminal files and bar-code identification of inmates are only part of what will make the new booking center work. Steps must also be taken to put the requested personnel there who will have an impact on the jail population.

The booking facility needs its own public defenders and prosecutors to argue cases. It also needs a judge who can set bail, take pleas as they are made and issue sentences on site. In other words, the booking center needs a court. Many defendants stay in the detention center for weeks awaiting trial only to enter a bargained plea that leads to immediate probation. They might have their cases dispensed with within hours of their arrest if the booking center included its own court.

Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson says the court was sought in the original budget request for the booking center. But somehow no money for lawyers or a judge was included in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget this year. The expense would save money in the long run. It would speed the process for hundreds of inmates who languish in jail at state expense awaiting trial on charges that usually lead to their release. The governor and legislative leaders should devise a plan to free up funds for the booking center. It could help avoid a costly federal court ruling and save money as the jail population shrinks.

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