State seek space for city courts

Officials discuss ways to ensure defendants receive speedy trials

`We've got to act now'

Emergency quarters is just one proposal for Baltimore's crisis

February 10, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Concerned that the breakdown in city courts threatens public safety, Maryland's top officials are scouring downtown Baltimore for space to create temporary emergency courtrooms where serious criminal cases at risk of being dismissed can be tried.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said yesterday that she and Gov. Parris N. Glendening are talking to the owners of a downtown building about converting space into temporary courtrooms. They also are trying to find space in state office buildings.

The concept is one of several being considered by judges, lawmakers and politicians to fix Baltimore's clogged court system, in which serious criminal charges -- including murder and armed robbery -- have been dismissed because of trial delays and other procedural missteps.

Plans for the emergency courtrooms -- and other proposals -- are far from finalized. For instance, officials are trying to determine who would staff the courtrooms. But they said yesterday that they no longer can tolerate the release of criminal suspects because prosecutors and judges cannot try the cases within Maryland's 180-day deadline for a "speedy trial."

"This would be a short-term fix, but we can't wait for the budget process and all the details of a comprehensive solution," Townsend said yesterday. "We've got to act now."

Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who supervises the city's criminal docket, said he has discussed the courtroom proposal with the governor's office and agrees with the concept.

"We appreciate the involvement by the leadership of the General Assembly and the governor's office, who are concerned, as are we, with trying to put together the resources to address all the problems of the criminal justice system of Baltimore City," Mitchell said.

Baltimore's chief judge, Joseph H. H. Kaplan, said the additional courtrooms could be staffed with retired judges.

"We do need space. We are not short of judges," Kaplan said. "If I could use all my retired judges, that would be great."

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said he has offered about a dozen lawyers on his staff to the overwhelmed state's attorney's office to help prosecute cases.

"I'm just trying to say, `If I can help, let me know what I can do,' " he said.

Curran also suggested that judges could try felony cases in district courthouses on Wabash and North avenues, and that state's attorneys in surrounding counties be contacted to determine whether they could volunteer prosecutors for a time.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy acknowledged discussing the offer with Curran.

"There are a number of issues that we have on the table," she said, declining to be specific.

It is not clear who would represent defendants under the emergency courtroom proposal. The public defender's office, which provides lawyers to the poor, is so short-staffed, it turned away 350 indigent people charged with felony drug crimes last year.

The judges have scheduled a meeting Feb. 17 to discuss an overall plan, long- and short-term, to solve the courthouse problems. Mitchell said about 15 representatives from the offices of the mayor, attorney general, governor, state's attorney and public defender and the Police Department have been invited.

Several proposals surfaced last week after The Sun published an article detailing the dismissal of carjacking and armed robbery charges. Some of the proposals have existed for years. Among them: shifting the responsibility for charging defendants from police to prosecutors, placing judges at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center, and setting up a night court to handle the growing number of criminal cases.

Last month, judges made some changes. They included cracking down on postponements and asking a few retired judges to hear old cases. Beginning March 1, judges plan to free more time for judges to hear cases by centralizing arraignments of criminal defendants in two courtrooms.

Lawmakers also have suggested that an independent monitor be brought into Baltimore to oversee the city's clogged criminal justice system. Maryland's chief judge, Robert M. Bell, rejected that idea yesterday, saying Mitchell is doing that job.

"I don't see any reason for it," Bell said. "I'm satisfied that Judge Mitchell is the appropriate man."

But he said there may ultimately be a need to return to the coordinating council that oversaw the criminal justice system in Baltimore during the administration of William Donald Schaefer.

Jessamy also said she favors the idea.

State Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs a House public safety subcommittee, said an independent monitor is necessary so the public and the legislature can be assured the problems are being fixed.

"The confidence in the system is very low because the sense in the legislature is that [recent news accounts] are the tip of the iceberg," Franchot said. "The No. 1 priority of the General Assembly is that public safety is protected."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, said Bell is moving in a "very affirmative direction." But he added that an independent monitor is needed because Bell does not control the entire criminal justice system. The constitutional separation-of-powers doctrine draws distinct lines between the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government.

Bell "has no authority over the Police Department. He has no authority over the state's attorney's office. He has no authority over the public defender's office," Rawlings said.

"Right now, there's no cross-cutting agency that has responsibility over all of the components of the system."

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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