Booking center backlog eases Delay is now 6 hours, not days, though problems still exist

April 18, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Top officials in charge of the state's high-tech Central Booking and Intake Center claimed yesterday that they had slashed prisoners' long waits to have bail set, but conceded that several serious problems remain at the 5-month-old facility.

Some prisoners have been waiting days to see court commissioners at the $56 million building -- delays that prisoners and bail bondsmen say violate civil rights and Maryland law. Others made bail but had to wait 12 hours to be released.

Corrections officials said they had stopped using an automated system for commissioners to request delivery of prisoners for hearings, because their hand-held computers didn't function properly. Five more officers also were added to escort prisoners to hearings.

As a result, a survey of 100 people being processed through the system between Tuesday and yesterday showed an average wait to see a court commissioner of about six hours, which is close to the goal, officials said.

"There has been a marked improvement in the last 48 hours," Judge Robert F. Sweeney, administrative judge of the District Court of Maryland, said yesterday after he met with criminal justice officials responsible for the center at East Madison Street and the Fallsway.

Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the facility, said significant concerns remain, including fixing flaws in the building's automated system and reducing the amount of time police officers are spending to book prisoners.

And while he said the wait to have bail set appeared to have improved markedly, delays remain a primary concern. "I don't want to see people delayed in this center," Mr. Robinson said. "It's a question of being human."

Numerous families have complained about the delays, including Judith Pope of Baltimore, who said her 18-year-old retarded son was held a full day after she had posted his $5,000 bail Sunday on an assault charge.

She complained that at about 11: 40 p.m. Monday, as she was on the phone with the booking center, she heard a knock on the door just as someone at the center was saying her son could not be released until data about him was entered into the computer.

"My son was standing at the door, soaking wet," she said.

Six of the city's nine police districts are taking suspects directly to the center, rather than continuing the old practice of sending prisoners to police lockups at the district stations.

The center is to free up booking officers for police patrols, and to reduce other costs by making the criminal justice system move faster.

Southwestern became the sixth district to send prisoners to the center at midnight yesterday. Three large remaining districts -- Central, Western and Northwestern -- are scheduled to be phased in within the year.

Mr. Robinson said yesterday the system was working well enough to accommodate the added volume from Southwestern. "This system's got to work. It's going to work," he said.

Mr. Robinson downplayed an earlier assertion by members of his department that a lack of court commissioners was causing delays in hearings.

A summary of the department audit made available to The Sun blamed the delays on several factors.

"What I found was a lack of communication among the three groups, a lack of training on how to use this system, [and] a system with the ability to get the job done only if everything is perfect," wrote one member of the study team. "Otherwise the users wind up with their hands cuffed like the prisoners."

The audit summary, dated April 2, found that court commissioners frequently were forced to manually override the computer system. Some court commissioners needed more training on the system, while hand-held computers often were down or failed to register queries.

"Commissioners feel that they are being scapegoats for the system's lack of design," wrote a member of the study team.

One unidentified team member wrote: "It was stated that because of the time spent waiting for terminals, police officers are only arresting people that are committing serious crimes."

Judge Sweeney said yesterday he had added a third court commissioner to each shift to accommodate suspects from Southwestern, the district added yesterday. But he continued to say commissioner staffing was not a problem.

Viewed via public-access video cameras in the Central Booking lobby, the commissioners' processing of prisoners seemed to be going more smoothly Tuesday. Prisoners were arriving for hearings in a steady stream.

But commissioners were often interrupted by phone calls from families and bail bondsmen checking on the status of a prisoner. "This is all new to me, too," a commissioner explained to a caller Tuesday afternoon.

And some prisoners held up their own hearings by rambling over the details of their cases.

Through a thick glass window, District Court Commissioner Roland Hayes faced a group of inmates anxious for release Tuesday night. "I've been in here five days," one man lamented.

Deftly handling the piles of paperwork on his desk, the constantly ringing telephone, the queries from the men in front of him and a bottle of Pepsi, Commissioner Hayes seemed to take the situation in stride.

But when one prisoner said it was his first experience with the new booking center, the commissioner offered some advice. "Anybody [who's] been in this building would be a damn fool to come back to it," he said, to a chorus of agreement from the prisoners.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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