McLendon 'misspoke' on diversion programs State's attorney says more cases dismissed

February 10, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Diversion programs that Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon pointed to as one of the main reasons for the high percentage of criminal cases brought in District Court but then not prosecuted by her office actually account for a far lower number of cases than she originally said.

That means the state's attorney's office dismisses many more cases than originally believed. These cases either are dropped entirely or stetted -- placed on the inactive docket.

"We misspoke," McLendon said in an interview last week in which she brought the discrepancy to light.

The numbers McLendon initially provided showed that -- with the diversions removed -- Howard's rate of dropped and stetted cases was 42 percent. But the new number is 51 percent -- far higher than the 39 percent average for other suburban counties near Baltimore.

After subtracting another diversion program that deals with criminal cases -- first-offender marijuana possession -- the Howard figure rises to 56 percent.

Diversion programs -- generally used in alcohol and drug cases -- allow a defendant to have his case dropped if he or she completes education or treatment programs.

Baltimore and Harford counties have no diversion programs; Anne Arundel has one for first-time marijuana possession defendants. Carroll County figures could not be obtained.

McLendon ran for office on a tough-on-crime stance and had characterized as "a poor performance" the percentage of District Court cases her predecessor, William R. Hymes, dropped. That number was actually lower than the 56 percent of cases McLendon's administration did not prosecute in her first year in office.

But McLendon says her comments criticizing Hymes were made in a broader context -- one focusing on a greater need for direction and organization within the office.

"I never just talked numbers, I never just talked tough," McLendon said. "I am not just talking statistics. I am saying look hard at it."

McLendon pointed out the high number of cases going into diversion programs when asked about the statistics by The Sun two weeks ago. In that article, a local defense attorney and prosecutors, speaking privately, questioned the organization of the state's attorney's office.

In correcting the figures for her administration, McLendon explained that she initially included numbers from a diversion program for first-time underage drinkers.

But later, after talking to the state office that compiles the statistics, she said she realized those cases are not included in the state's criminal district court numbers. Though handled by the state's attorney's office and listed on the criminal docket, the underage-drinking cases are civil citations -- therefore can't be included in data on the processing of criminal cases.

"I don't think I am the only one confused," McLendon said. She added it is hard to know how other state and county agencies collect court statistics.

McLendon maintains that the percentage of stetted and dropped cases does not prove that her office is doing anything wrong, saying that she is confident her prosecutors are making the right decisions in those cases.

In the high-volume District Court system, cases often are dropped for a variety of reasons including diversion programs, the inability of police to produce sufficient evidence and weak cases filed by citizens.

McLendon suggests that one reason for Howard's higher-than-average percentage may lie with the county's six District Court commissioners. In Maryland, citizens can file criminal complaints directly with the commissioners and the charges are forwarded to the state's attorney. McLendon said commissioners probably should use more discretion when deciding whether there is probable cause for a case to go forward.

"I think sometimes [the commissioners] send through things they know in their heart they should not," McLendon said.

A Howard District Court commissioner said about 99 percent of the cases are accepted, and the office has never received a complaint from McLendon about its judgment.

A commissioner in Baltimore County said his office -- like that in Howard -- allows about 99 percent of cases to proceed. The idea, he said, is to allow people access to the justice system.

McLendon also pointed to Baltimore County's high rate of case dismissals -- decisions made by a judge -- saying that suggests the state's attorney's office there may have a lower percentage of dropped and stetted cases because it prosecutes weak cases. About 7 percent of Baltimore County's 20,000 criminal cases in fiscal 1996 were dismissed, compared with 0.3 percent of Howard's 5,000 cases.

"We use more discretion," McLendon said.

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