Too many city drug cases New rules: State's Attorney Jessamy is right to go after major dealers.

November 10, 1995

POLICE OFFICERS may at times think that they're the only ones fighting the drug war, that the only thing which matters are the arrests they make. But it's not true. Arrests mean little if the courts are too tied up to try defendants, if the prisons are too full to hold more convicts.

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, knows this. But he didn't let it stop him from criticizing a new rule that doubles the amount of cocaine a suspect must have to be charged with a felony.

Officer McLhinney said the rule change by State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy was "typical of a bureaucrat who sits behind her desk and is blind to real-life situations." He is absolutely wrong. Mrs. Jessamy's decision to reduce the number of felony arrests is firmly based on reality, reality that goes beyond the streets.

By Sept. 1 of this year, Baltimore City had surpassed the number of felony drug arrests it made all of last year -- 3,367 compared with 3,259 in 1994. This means the four city courts that handle only drug cases are swamped. It means prosecutors are having a hard time meeting the state-mandated limit of 180 days between a defendant's arraignment and his trial. It means all those not tried within those 180 days will be set free.

The public doesn't want that to happen. The police don't want it to happen. Neither does Mrs. Jessamy. She studied the situation and determined that in circuit court cases involving fewer than 30 rocks of crack cocaine or 30 small bags of powdered cocaine or heroin, the defendant usually received a misdemeanor-level sentence. Judges have been trying to preserve limited prison space for bigger dealers.

Rather than have a 60-day backlog before these drug cases even reach arraignment, with most of them leading to misdemeanor sentences, Mrs. Jessamy decided to charge those defendants with a misdemeanor in the first place. Then their cases can be handled more speedily in district court.

There are exceptions. A defendant caught selling drugs near a school or with a weapon or with a history of drug dealing automatically will be charged with a felony. Mrs. Jessamy is trying to help the circuit court handle as many major felony drug cases as possible. She shouldn't be criticized for that.

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