Officials seek to ease jail delays Cause of backlogs remains in dispute

April 11, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

State criminal justice officials said yesterday that they are preparing a plan to ease backlogs at the new $56 million Central Booking and Intake Center, where prisoners wait days in some cases just to have bail set.

Judge Robert F. Sweeney, administrative judge of the District Court of Maryland, said he has asked for a meeting Wednesday with agencies involved in the center to figure out how to solve the problems.

In the meantime, Paul E. Leuba, director of data services for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the jail, said he is writing a plan for improvements.

Judges, police and prisoners have complained repeatedly about backups at the facility, which has been touted as a national model for streamlining the criminal justice system with the use of automation. The center opened Nov. 28 and is receiving prisoners from five of the city's nine police districts.

The loudest complaints have been about inordinately long waits to see court commissioners. Judge Sweeney said this week that a spot-check of the system showed suspects were waiting an average of 24 hours and 15 minutes to see commissioners -- 20 hours longer than it was supposed to be and slightly over the limit allowed under Maryland law. Some prisoners and their families said they were waiting for days.

Judges and corrections officials continued to disagree yesterday over the cause of the problem.

Judges say the commissioners are idle for hours, because an automated system used to request prisoners for hearings often isn't working -- and when it is, there are delays in bringing prisoners.

But Mr. Leuba said a weeklong examination of the flow of prisoners through the jail showed court commissioners were seeing only 10 per shift, compared with a goal of 16, suggesting there weren't enough commissioners on duty.

Judge Sweeney vigorously disputed that yesterday. "Unless everyone who works for me and with me is lying, I have commissioners in the booking facility with nothing to do," he said. "Not doing nothing, but with nothing to do."

"I am satisfied as of this time that we are not the cause. If I am shown that we are the cause, I will rectify it."

Mr. Leuba said yesterday that he was not criticizing any individual commissioner's performance. He acknowledged that he needs to work with the vendor that supplied the center with computer equipment, which has been down an average of a half-hour a day.

Prisoners' interviews with pretrial services investigators also appear to be delaying appearances before court commissioners -- so that part of the system will likely be changed, he said.

"Doing one thing alone is not sufficient. There needs to be three or four things done," Mr. Leuba said. "That improvement needs to be done together."

Meanwhile, the city police union chief yesterday joined the chorus of critics of the new center.

Officer Gary McLhinney said he hears stories about officers being taken off the street for three to four hours to book a single suspect at the center. He said most officers are now familiar with the computers, so he believes the system itself is the problem.

"It just requires too much down time for our officers," he said. And even he said prisoners were waiting far too long for court commissioners. "I'm not one to side with the criminal element," he said, "but what's fair is fair."

Pub Date: 4/11/96

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