Governor must lead repair of justice system

Aid pledge: Extra money is welcome, but it cannot resolve turf fights and organizational problems.

Getting away with Murder

February 18, 1999

GOV. PARRIS N. Glendening's pledge of $3 million to solve the problems of Baltimore City's criminal justice system is welcome. But it is not enough. The governor, Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke must personally intervene to repair a malfunctioning court system, State's Attorney's Office and police force.

In a two-page editorial Sunday, "Getting away with murder," The Sun detailed how bureaucratic infighting among overburdened law enforcement organizations contributes to Baltimore's frightening homicide problem. Our recommendations on rectifying the situation started with a call for the three leaders to spearhead a crusade against Baltimore's high murder rate.

We repeat that summons. With 314 homicides last year, Baltimore is in the midst of a public emergency. Absent extraordinary high-level intervention, the disarray of the criminal justice bureaucracies cannot be ended quickly.

So far, Governor Glendening is on board. He has designated Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to concentrate on the situation. Chief Judge Bell, too, has been working on unclogging the courts. Distressingly, Mayor Schmoke is not aggressively seeking a solution. He has talked with Mr. Bell but has not been in direct contact with the governor's office. When the top leaders of Maryland law agencies held an unprecedented meeting yesterday to discuss the crisis, Mr. Schmoke was absent because of a scheduling conflict.

The mayor's rocky relations with the governor are nothing new. However, the breakdown of law and order in Baltimore is so alarming that such petty squabbles must be set aside. The various criminal-justice bureaucracies, whether they are part of state or city government, must be repaired into a seamless, high-functioning machine that is capable of administering justice swiftly and credibly.

Mayor's task

Mayor Schmoke must personally address the shocking lack of cooperation between the Police Department and the State's Attorney's Office. Those two agencies are vital if Baltimore's fight against crime is to be successful. Yet they not only work at cross-purposes but actively feud with one another. To stop the chronic overloading of the courts that begins with arrests, Mayor Schmoke also must lead an effort to persuade police to give up the job of charging arrestees and turn over the function to the State's Attorney's Office.

Chief judge's task

Chief Judge Bell must achieve two primary tasks. He has to implement emergency measures that alleviate the backlog of felony cases in Baltimore Circuit Court.

With help from the governor's office, he also has to persuade the recalcitrant District Court to take a more realistic view of its place in the total system. Its bull-headed refusal to use a courtroom built by the state inside Baltimore's $54 million Central Booking and Intake Center exemplifies the District Court's difficulties operating as part of a larger system.

Governor's task

Governor Glendening and Lieutenant Governor Townsend have potent financial powers of persuasion. They should use them. Not only by allocating resources to needy agencies under state control -- such as the courts and the Public Defender's Office -- but also by ensuring speedy reforms are enacted in agencies that are not part of the state but receive grants from Annapolis. These include city police and the State's Attorney's Office.

Regardless of control or funding, all parts of the Maryland criminal justice system are intertwined. If one part does not function well, it affects all others.

The governor's office needs to focus on two particular tasks. It should:

Ensure that the criminal justice coordinating council convened yesterday under the chairmanship of Circuit Court Judge David B. Mitchell becomes an effective leadership group able to execute quick reforms.

Implement the 1996 recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts. Had the reforms advocated by that blue-ribbon panel been in place, the current crisis in Baltimore could have been avoided.

No more studies

Over the past few decades, various levels of government have developed a penchant for commissions and consultant studies. While useful, such reports are no substitute for leadership and political will.

The Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts has charted a course that should be followed. A judge and a court administrator from Philadelphia, who received funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, have scrutinized the deficiencies of the Baltimore Circuit Court and proposed measures to correct them. The problems are well understood; the solutions are amply documented. Reforms now must be implemented.

This requires aggressive joint leadership by the governor's office, Chief Judge Bell and Mayor Schmoke. They must act and be held accountable.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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