Prosecutor acts to ease court backlog

November 07, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In an attempt to keep more serious cases from being delayed in a Circuit Court backlog, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has changed her office's rules so that more drug offenders will be charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Now a person can be caught with up to 30 rocks of crack cocaine -- or 30 unit bags of heroin or powdered cocaine -- and be charged only with drug possession, a misdemeanor. That's double the amount of drugs that used to qualify offenders for the felony charge of possession with intent to distribute.

"We're six months down the road in terms of scheduling [Circuit Court] cases," Mrs. Jessamy said yesterday. "We need to get them into court as soon as possible. We need to make the system more efficient."

The goal is to keep more cases in the city's district courts -- where they can get prompter attention -- while trying for sentences similar to those judges have been giving lower-level cases in the higher court.

The policy also has a long list of exceptions. For example, a known dealer with a long rap sheet could be charged with a felony even if he was caught with fewer than 30 bags. So could someone who sold drugs to an undercover police officer; someone found with a weapon; someone with large amounts of cash or paraphernalia that suggested dealing; or someone picked up at an address known for a history of dealing.

Prosecutors have been directed generally to charge as misdemeanors only those cases for which they think they could get no more than an 18-month sentence in Circuit Court. The policy should keep about 1,000 defendants out of felony court by sometime next year, Mrs. Jessamy said.

"I think it's a necessary step," said Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of Baltimore Circuit Court, who in September devoted a fourth court solely to felony drug cases. "At this point, I don't know what will solve the problem."

An internal memo prepared by the state's attorney's office several months ago predicted that Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's large drug sweeps and other arrests would flood the Baltimore system with 7,482 felony defendants by the end of this year -- about 1,600 more than in 1994.

Drug defendants made up 62 percent of all Baltimore felony defendants in the first quarter of 1995 -- and are waiting an average of nearly seven months before their first trial date if they do not plea-bargain their cases early.

The courts also have been under pressure to stem the flow of defendants who have crowded the Baltimore City Detention Center well beyond a federal court-enforced cap of 2,930 inmates.

That projection didn't include the extra cases from the addition of units in police districts to carry out sweeps.

Mrs. Jessamy said she wanted to be able to concentrate more resources on large kingpin and conspiracy cases that could make a real dent in drug distribution networks. She said the new rules mean that suspected dealers netted in larger police raids can continue to be indicted on felony charges.

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