Judge invited to visit booking center Letter says prisoners are being processed according to state law

June 08, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Attorneys for the state's Central Booking and Intake Center yesterday invited a Baltimore Circuit judge to visit at any time to see for himself that prisoners are processed at the new center in accordance with state law.

The invitation came in the wake of a lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at the Baltimore facility who say they were detained more than 24 hours before seeing a court commissioner, and held for hours after they were ordered released.

In a letter to Judge David B. Mitchell, Assistant Attorney General Andrew H. Baida also offered yesterday to let Alan P. Zukerberg, the lawyer who filed the class-action suit, review booking center records to satisfy himself that prisoners do not experience undue delays. Baida wrote that the review of records would be subject to confidentiality requirements of state and federal law.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said yesterday the $56 million, high-tech center is working well and that it is key to making the city's criminal justice system function better.

Eight of the nine city police districts use the booking center.

"This is something that is unique, that is working, that is working well," Sipes said. "The overwhelming number of our goals and objectives have been met."

Sipes said the total time for processing prisoners -- from the time they enter the center to the time they are released or ordered held by a commissioner -- is averaging 10 hours. He said most prisoners are getting to a court commissioner in much less time than that.

Within 2 1/2 hours, he said, most prisoners are ready to see a commissioner.

Maryland law requires that arrestees have a bail hearing within 24 hours of being taken in by police.

At a hearing Thursday, Mitchell denied Zukerberg's request for immediate access to records and prisoners at the center so that he could determine whether any were waiting more than 24 hours to have bail set.

The judge met with lawyers in the case yesterday to try to come to terms on an order ensuring prisoners' rights were not violated as Zukerberg's suit proceeds.

Stories about long waits in the booking center surfaced in April, as computer system breakdowns and logistical problems caused a backlog in processing prisoners. Since then, state officials say, the technology has been working well and they have changed procedures for moving prisoners from holding cells to see commissioners.

Victor White, a 36-year-old city employee, appeared in court Thursday, prepared to testify that he had waited 24 hours to be released from the center after having his bail posted this week. He said two people in a cell with him had been there for more than two days and had not seen commissioners.

Paperwork blamed

Sipes said yesterday that White's wait arose from a paperwork problem, in which a court number and a number designating his release were inconsistent.

Judge Robert F. Sweeney, administrative judge of the District Court of Maryland, said yesterday that the flow of prisoners through the center had improved remarkably since April.

He said he was authorizing additional court commissioners, if needed, to handle the volume of new police districts using the system.

He said he was surprised to hear that it was still taking hours for prisoners who had been ordered released to get out of the building.

"It's difficult for me to understand," he said. "It certainly was not true before the days of centralized booking."

In his letter to Mitchell, Baida wrote that prisoners at the booking center were being let go four to five hours after they were ordered released. In court Thursday, he told the judge that prison staff needed to check for warrants and other charges against arrestees before setting them free.

'Hang in there'

Judge Sweeney emphasized that on the whole, he felt the new facility would do everything it was designed to do.

"I am satisfied that in the long run if we all hang in there, police, jailers, courts and the public are going to benefit from it," he said.

Sipes said the center's fingerprinting systems have been working "flawlessly" and that early screening of cases by prosecutors and defense attorneys there already has saved the state $200,000 in detention fees.

Pub Date: 6/08/96

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