Top state officials promise up to 3 more courtrooms

Hours after they meet, another case dropped

February 18, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

With Baltimore's courts in crisis, the state's top judicial officers and politicians said yesterday that they plan to create as many as three emergency courtrooms in the city so backlogged criminal cases can be brought to trial.

The move yesterday at a meeting of 19 officials from city and state criminal justice agencies -- including Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and the state's chief judge, Robert M. Bell -- represents a broad commitment to rescuing Baltimore's beleaguered courts.

In recent months, a series of cases, including those against murder and armed robbery suspects, have been dismissed because prosecutors and judges violated defendants' rights to trials within the state's 180-day deadline.

Hours after yesterday's meeting, another case -- this one involving drug charges -- was dismissed by a Baltimore judge who ruled that the defendant's right to a speedy trial was violated by the state's attorney's office.

Judge David B. Mitchell, chief of the city's criminal docket, told the panel yesterday that judges, who have disposed of many cases since last month, are committed to resolving the problems.

"Someone has to," he said.

The meeting yesterday was the beginning of what judicial officials and politicians -- made nervous by the image of criminal suspects being freed -- hope will be a commitment to streamline the city's justice system. The courthouse, Mitchell said, has been hobbled by a lack of leadership and coordination.

But the meeting underscored how tough solving some of the problems will be. City prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, clerks and jail administrators not only sit on different sides of the courtroom, but they rely on different funding sources and aggressively protect their political turf.

Mitchell said the time has come to work together.

"For too long, this community has not had a functioning body charged with the responsibility of bringing together the various agencies that impact the criminal justice system," the judge said. "We have been the poorer for this lack of coordination."

For a short-term solution, Mitchell asked prosecutors, the public defender, defense attorneys and clerks to tell him what their offices would need to staff up to three temporary courtrooms that could start hearing cases March 1.

Townsend offered two conference rooms and an auditorium at state office buildings on West Preston Street that could be converted quickly into courtrooms for civil jury trials, freeing existing space for criminal cases.

The temporary courtrooms would cost the state about $150,000.

Courthouse supervisors said they wanted to keep the criminal jury trials at the downtown courthouses, where there are jail cells for defendants and sheriff's deputies to escort them around the buildings.

Tuesday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening offered more than $2.5 million to provide temporary courtroom space and funding for the public defender's office.

A deadline Wednesday

With the state space available, questions yesterday turned to staffing. Prosecutors, public defenders and clerks were told to come up with a plan by Wednesday to make the proposed courtrooms a reality.

The new courtrooms will be staffed with retired judges.

Also yesterday, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. offered as many as 30 lawyers from his staff to work temporarily for the city state's attorney's office. But with more prosecutors, state Public Defender Stephen E. Harris, whose office represents the majority of the defendants in Baltimore, said his staff won't be able to keep up.

Harris said his lawyers carry a load three times the national average, or about 60 to 70 cases per lawyer.

Curran agreed that an influx of prosecutors could create trouble. "If you've got 20 prosecutors and three public defenders, you've got a problem," he said.

Robert L. Ferguson Jr., president of the city bar association, said he will meet with the public defender's office to determine whether his organization can help by enlisting private lawyers.

The criminal defense association last fall rejected a proposal to help, saying it should not have to bear the burden of underfunding of the public defender's office and overcharging by police and prosecutors.

Mitchell said the cases to be tried in the proposed emergency courtrooms would come from the "move list" of cases ready for trial.

Yesterday, 46 cases were on the list.

Drafting a plan for Assembly

Townsend urged the criminal justice leaders yesterday to quickly draft a comprehensive plan to resolve the crisis, warning that the state legislature might not approve new resources without it.

"There is no question that the legislature is going to demand it [the plan]," Townsend said.

Solutions to longer-term problems will be more nettlesome. Yesterday, several participants offered suggestions, such as night court and shifting the authority to charge suspects with crimes from police to prosecutors (a move that would reduce the number of weak cases that clog the system). Many of the ideas have been around for years.

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