Booking center can solve problems

July 13, 1995

The state's use of Baltimore's new central booking facility to house prisoners who can't fit inside the city's crowded jail raised fears that the "temporary" arrangement might become permanent. It won't. A tour of the completed portions of the new facility dispels all such fears. The investment in technology taking place there is convincing. Once everything is in place, the booking center will become a world model for the efficient cataloguing of criminal defendants awaiting trial.

Police will bring those arrested anywhere in the city to the central location, where everything goes into computer files, from the taking of fingerprints electronically to digitized mug shots made by a video camera. Data bank information about defendants will eventually be accessible immediately by computer to other law enforcement agencies across Maryland. The data system will next be expanded to Harford, Prince George's, Wicomico, Howard, Frederick and St. Mary's counties.

The technology alone, however, is not enough to ensure the swift movement of defendants in the criminal justice system. They will be booked faster but could languish in jail for weeks or months if nothing is done to speed the process of hearing their cases. Video hook-ups to the city's courthouses will allow judges to hold bail hearings for defendants while they are still at the booking facility. That will save time and the cost of transporting hundreds of prisoners from the jail to court.

But in many instances a bail hearing or incarceration while awaiting a hearing is unnecessary. Defendants want to immediately enter a plea or there is insufficient evidence to try them. Why should taxpayers spend thousands of dollars trying to house them in a crowded jail, if they are going to be given probation or released once they go before a judge? If a judge were in the booking center, with public defenders and prosecutors, such cases might be disposed of within hours of an arrest.

This could have a significant impact on the crowding at the Baltimore City Detention Center, which most days is in violation of a federal court order on inmate housing. The court order limits the jail population to 2,933 inmates. This summer there have typically been 3,147 prisoners inside the jail, another 299 in police lock-ups and other facilities and 309 in the wing of the new central booking facility that has been completed.

Plans are to use another 400 beds within the booking center when they become available next month. But eventually the facility must be used as it was envisioned, with its own public defenders, prosecutors and judge. The governor and legislative leaders should devise a plan to free up funds for them. It could help avoid a costly federal court ruling and save money as the jail population shrinks.

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