Judges seek to reverse reform

Baltimore panel says changes enacted in '97 have clogged dockets

Streamlining effort fails

Backers hope to curb case delays, dismissal

January 14, 1999|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Top Baltimore judges are recommending that a key reform enacted 1 1/2 years ago to streamline justice be abandoned because it has instead resulted in more delays.

The recommendation comes as the city Circuit Court wrestles with growing evidence that the justice system has been crippled by clogged dockets.

Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, Baltimore's administrative judge, said the effort to speed justice and sharpen prosecution did not work as it was meant to. Judges have less time for trials, and delays abound.

The reform, known as vertical prosecution, entails the same prosecutor handling a case from shortly after an arrest through the trial and the same judge presiding over the case from arraignment to sentencing. It was enacted in September 1997.

Now the judges want to return to the old way, where arraignments were centralized and handled by one or two judges -- with improvements.

"It's not as productive as we had hoped it would be," Kaplan said.

The court's six-judge management committee approved a proposal yesterday to begin changes in the system's drug courts. That proposal will be presented to the full bench next week.

If it is approved and the test is successful, Kaplan hopes to expand it to all felony courts.

The proposal also recommends a system to track drug cases by seriousness, something that, if expanded to the whole felony docket, could have prevented the dismissal last week of murder charges because of chronic postponements.

That case "would have been on a track, and nothing would have interfered," Kaplan said. "The way it is now, [it was] in there with everything else."

The committee's recommendation comes after a report by the Criminal Courts Technical Assistance Project last month that questioned the effectiveness of vertical prosecution.

Kaplan says the reform means the 11 felony judges must spend one day a week arraigning new cases.

"You eliminate one or two days for every trial court, you're eliminating a lot of time," Kaplan said.

If the proposal is adopted, the court would return to the old system, under which about two courts were designated to handle arraignments.

The report last month showed that the reform had made the situation marginally worse in the overwhelmed court system.

The proportion of cases disposed of early in the process, either by way of a guilty plea or prosecutors dropping charges, fell by four percentage points -- rather than increasing, as hoped.

The report also noted that trial postponements often occurred because the prosecutor assigned to the case was handling a different matter in another courtroom.

"If the same attorneys are assigned to a single courtroom, they are guaranteed to be available to try at least one of the cases on the court's docket," the report says. "The trial court is therefore kept busy."

State Public Defender Stephen E. Harris said the switch would help the beleaguered system, but most important is effective case management. He said judges often won't hear pretrial matters, which can determine the strength of a case and how it should be handled, until the trial date.

Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck said his office will review the proposal. "We are agreeable to trying anything that will work to improve the system," Kodeck said.

The case-management change also would begin in the drug courts. The proposal recommends that a drug case be reviewed by the prosecution and defense about 50 days after arrest to determine whether it should go to trial.

Then, the case would be placed on one of four tracks, depending on its complexity. For example, the A track would handle cases with few witnesses. C-track cases would have four or more defendants, 10 or more witnesses and complicated legal issues.

"It's not going to completely solve the crush problem but it will help," Kaplan said.

What the courts really need, he said, are more prosecutors, public defenders and judges.

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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