Judges, inmates unhappy with Central Booking Complaints focus on delays, backups

police criticize photos

April 10, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Late last week, a small group of prisoners at the state's new Central Booking and Intake Center was suspended between incarceration and freedom -- victims of a literal clog in the system, a stopped-up pneumatic tube.

The tube system, designed to send vital paperwork from floor to floor in the new $56 million high-tech jail, got stuck -- and the prisoners with it. Somewhere in the system were the papers that showed they had made bail or otherwise were ready for release.

To the prisoners, families, bail bond providers and defense lawyers whose criticisms of the new center have grown, it was no surprise.

Those arrested in Baltimore have had to endure delays in the system for years. But the booking center, opened Nov. 28, was designed to change that by streamlining the city's criminal justice system with the help of automation. Five of the city's nine police districts are now taking suspects straight to the building, at East Madison Street and the Fallsway, instead of holding them at the districts.

Officials boasted that the wait for court commissioners at the building would be slashed to four hours. But the chief judge of Maryland's district courts says the average wait at the new jail is 24 hours and 15 minutes -- 20 hours longer than it is supposed to be, and at the limit of what is permissible under Maryland law.

Some people say they are waiting many hours more. One bail bondsman said his clients have been waiting three to five days just to see a court commissioner.

Officials with the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which built the booking facility, said a recent investigation shows that the problem lies with the court commissioners, who are seeing only 10 prisoners per shift instead of the 16 they should be able to see.

Paul E. Leuba, director of data services for the department, said that commissioners weren't starting hearings until they had been at work for an average of an hour and a half, and were concluding hearings an average of an hour before their shifts ended.

"We're going to fix this together with the courts," Mr. Leuba said. "This is not a big problem."

"We are pioneers in uncharted waters," said Commissioner LaMont W. Flanagan, who oversees the booking center. "When we do get this thing right, whoever comes behind us will be perfect."

That's little comfort to people like Keith Scott, 24, who was arrested Friday night on a drug possession charge. He said he didn't see a court commissioner until close to 6 p.m. Sunday. In the meantime, he said, he was sandwiched into a holding cell with nine men and one toilet, which clogged twice during his stay. The cells around him were equally crowded, he said.

"We were sleeping on each other," Mr. Scott said. "I didn't have a shower. I didn't brush my teeth."

When he finally did see a court commissioner, he was let go on his own recognizance.

Veronica Strader was hopping mad when her husband, Anthony Howard Baublitz, was kept in jail for more than 24 hours last week after turning himself in on a warrant for failing to appear in court. He should have been released sooner, she felt, because his bail had already been set and she had already paid it. But he was forced to wait for a commissioner.

There are other problems with the expensive new building. The computer system, which holds information on every prisoner who comes in and tells where he should be in the booking process, goes down frequently, according to bond providers and police. Mr. Leuba, however, said the system was functional well over 90 percent of the time, going down about a half hour each day.

Police are upset at what they say is the inferior quality of photographs of suspects generated by the facility's expensive new equipment, potentially hindering their efforts to tie suspects to crimes. Mr. Leuba said the photos have improved recently, and that during the design phase, police did not outline what they wanted from the photography system.

In general, officials say that 80 percent of the new booking center's functions are working well.

But the delays have drawn ire.

Allen Marco of Get Free Bail Bonds said one client, arrested on a traffic violation, lost his job because his employer could not understand why it was taking him so long to bail out of jail. "It should be shut down," he said of the system. "It really does not work."

"This new system they've put in place is failing," said defense attorney Patrick M. Smith, who said a client arrested on a drunken driving charge had been held for two days without seeing a court commissioner.

Judge Mary Ellen Rinehardt, head of the Baltimore District Court, said the commissioners are hampered because an automated system, used by commissioners to request prisoners for hearings, often does not work. Even when the system performs, requests sometimes aren't honored quickly, she said.

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