State to aid city's courts

Glendening pledges nearly $3 million for this year, next

Backlogs `unacceptable'

Missteps in courts resulted in release of criminal suspects

February 17, 1999|By Rafael Alvarez and Caitlin Francke | Rafael Alvarez and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Responding to a lingering Baltimore court crisis that has allowed criminal suspects to go free because of backlogs, Gov. Parris N. Glendening promised last night to provide nearly $3 million to ease what he called an "unacceptable" situation.

"I want to get that docket cleared, make justice timely and for people to have confidence in the system," Glendening said in an interview.

"If a member of my family was a victim of violent crime and I was told the system was so screwed up that the people charged were being let go, I would be furious," he said.

Glendening said his outrage -- and decision to act now -- resulted from a series of articles recently in The Sun describing a court system in which cases of violent crime have been dismissed because of trial delays and other missteps.

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.

"This problem is beyond excuses," the governor said.

In a letter delivered yesterday to Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, Glendening said: "[We are] prepared to support your efforts in bringing this matter under control."

To that end, the governor is submitting to the General Assembly an immediate "deficiency request" for $128,000 to hire about eight temporary public defenders in the city as soon as possible. The state public defender's office made a similar request of the governor in the fall.

Beyond that, Glendening will ask the legislature, through a supplemental request, to approve between $800,000 and $2 million in next year's budget for additional courtroom space. The new space would be used to try backlogged criminal cases.

Also in the fiscal 2000 budget, Glendening said he would seek an additional $750,000 to hire prosecutors and defense attorneys to clear the long-clogged dockets. If money for more judges was needed, Glendening said, he will find that too. Currently, retired judges are being asked to help.

Baltimore's chief judge, Joseph H. H. Kaplan, who asked the state for $3 million for new courtrooms, has said enough retired judges are available to fill that space.

The money for courtroom space -- which must be located and renovated -- and the hiring of attorneys beyond the eight public defenders would not be available until July 1 at the earliest.

The state Department of General Services will look at space in the state office complexes at 201 and 300 W. Preston St. as possible sites for the new courtrooms.

Said Glendening's spokesman Ray Feldmann: "The administration will provide the money, and we expect the legislature to approve it. We're confident we'll have the money to do this."

Some members of the legislature were not as confident last night, implying that the problem in Baltimore goes far deeper than money.

"There has to be a plan produced that people in the legislature have confidence in before additional resources are approved," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Public Safety and Administration.

"I think the clear consensus in the legislature is that this problem in Baltimore is not just a money problem, it is a management problem," Franchot said.

If approved, the money would provide Baltimore's circuit court system with an important option, Bell said last night. But, he added, just how the money would be used is in question.

Those decisions must be agreed upon by all members of the criminal-justice system, who are meeting to discuss the crisis today at the city's Clarence Mitchell Courthouse downtown.

"Our plans may very well include temporary space," Bell said. "Whatever we do, we're going to have to have all the other parties involved in order to staff it."

Judge David B. Mitchell, who is responsible for the city's criminal docket, said enough prosecutors and defense attorneys must be available to try the cases. He said problems have arisen in the past because of "unilateral" decisions made by one area of the criminal-justice system that were not coordinated with the others.

"That's a mistake that will not be repeated," Mitchell said.

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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