More judges not a backlog cure, Bell says

State's chief judge notes need for public defenders, prosecutors

City's delayed cases cited

Systemwide approach seen as necessary to solve problems

January 27, 1999|By Michael Dresser and Caitlin Francke | Michael Dresser and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell told the General Assembly yesterday that more judges are not the cure for the backlog of delayed cases in Baltimore's Circuit Court.

Delivering his State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Senate and House of Delegates, Bell warned legislators that the city's public defender and state's attorney's office will need more lawyers to handle an increased criminal caseload.

Referring to newspaper accounts of repeated trial delays leading to dismissals of serious criminal cases, Bell said, "Those stories have not furthered our quest to inspire the public's confidence in the judiciary."

Bell -- Maryland's highest-ranking judicial officer as chief judge of the Court of Appeals -- told lawmakers that the problems of Baltimore's courts can only be resolved by taking a "systemwide" approach with the cooperation of the state's attorney, public defender, city police and the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In effect, Bell said the judiciary would deal with its problems before coming hat in hand to the General Assembly. He sought only two new judgeships statewide -- one each for district courts in Frederick and Prince George's counties.

"It is appropriate that we bring hard work and innovation to the table before seeking additional judgeship resources," he said.

Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who recently took charge of his court's criminal docket, said judges have to better manage the beleaguered system with available resources.

Mitchell has begun cracking down on postponements and prioritizing old cases.

Lack of lawyers

Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the city Circuit Court, said he has enough judges to hear cases but not enough prosecutors and defense attorneys are available to try them.

The Circuit Court has 30 judges -- 11 dedicated to felony criminal cases.

Felony drug cases have tripled in the city over the past seven years.

Kaplan pointed to the opening of two drug courts last spring, which prompted a constitutional crisis.

The public defender's office, which provides legal representation to the poor, said it could not staff the courts.

The agency handed out letters to about 350 defendants telling them it could not provide the representation they are entitled to by law.

"Just adding judges to the mix without changing the mix accomplishes nothing," Kaplan said.

Bell's modest wish list won praise from Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"The judge is correct -- that he is not going to recommend spending money for spending money's sake until they develop a comprehensive solution," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Bell went out of his way to remind legislators of the severe strains on the city public defender's office.

Heavier defender caseload

He said the average public defender was carrying 65 open cases in September, compared with 27 three years ago.

The chief judge did not explicitly ask for more money, but his words were viewed as a plug for Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget proposal calling for eight additional defense lawyers in the Baltimore office.

Bell also said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has told him she needs more prosecutors.

In recent months, a shortage of judges has been partly to blame for the dismissals of charges in a homicide case and a sex-offense case.

Kaplan said that although the excuse might be listed on the postponement request form, it is not always the case.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors often say that to justify the postponement, he said.

"They always sort of throw that one in for good measure," Kaplan said. "Every time they put court unavailable, it wasn't factually accurate. [The attorneys] were somewhere else, they didn't want to be stretched."

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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