Experts study trial delays at city court Four-member team looking for ways to speed up justice

July 06, 1998|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

For years, the Baltimore Circuit Court has been the focus of complaints that it takes too long for criminal cases to come to trial.

This summer, a team of legal experts will try to find ways to help it pick up the pace.

Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, Circuit Court administrative judge, said a judge and court administrator from Philadelphia and two legal analysts from Washington are interviewing court officials, clerks, judges and lawyers to discover ways to expedite and generally improve the way criminal cases are brought to trial.

Kaplan has secured U.S. Justice Department funding through American University's School of Public Affairs to pay for a four-member team that includes Judge Legrome P. Davis, chief judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, and his court administrator, Joseph Cairone, to evaluate the Baltimore Circuit Court.

They will be assisted by Joseph A. Trotter, director of American University's Justice Programs Office, and Carolyn Cooper, an office staffer, in researching the court's felony caseload, its staffing levels and its process for handling cases.

"We're looking at the whole operation of our felony docket from beginning to end, from arrest through to disposition," Kaplan said.

Trotter said the project will cost $3,000 to $5,000 and is to be completed in September.

Those who work with the city Circuit Court have said for years that delays in bringing cases to trial are a major problem.

A Sun analysis in February found that 150 inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center had been in jail awaiting trial for a year or more and that of 6,832 defendants scheduled for trial between July 1 and Oct. 31, some 45 percent, or 3,048 cases, had been postponed at least once.

State law guarantees defendants the right to be tried within 180 days of arrest, but the deadline may be waived -- and frequently is -- by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge's order.

Experts say an increasing number of criminal cases are creating delays and clogging the courts.

Alan Woods, chief of research, development and training for city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, said that the number of new felony defendants in the Circuit Court increased from 5,616 in 1990 to 7,183 last year.

The number of jury trials requested by defendants charged with misdemeanors in the city's District Court also was up, from 3,084 in 1990 to 4,730 last year, he said.

"In a lot of cases, they're charging people who just shouldn't be charged," said Richard Karceski, a Towson-based defense lawyer.

In a routine car stop, police will charge six passengers in a car when they find one marijuana cigarette; or they will charge a husband with assault for pushing his wife or a wife with assault for pushing her husband, he said.

Baltimore police say they do not overcharge and that they are mandated to make arrests where there is evidence of assault, drug dealing or other offenses, said Rob W. Weinhold Jr., a city police spokesman.

Weinhold said officers are trained to bring charges in domestic abuse incidents because they have a duty to prevent continued abuse.

Kaplan said that the criminal court system has needed help for years, but that solutions have become mired in concerns over the costs of corrective measures, such as better computer systems and more judges.

He said having independent experts evaluate the system and issue a report should help convince city and state officials of the need for improvements.

"For me to point fingers at some other agency and say it's your fault won't accomplish anything," Kaplan said. "The idea is to have a neutral person saying you could be doing this better, you could be doing that better."

Pub Date: 7/06/98

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