Mayor has his own fix for courts

Schmoke defends absence at meeting on judicial backlogs

He pushes state takeover

Not attending was symbolic snub, participants say

February 19, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke defended yesterday his absence from a key meeting on Baltimore's paralyzed courts by calling the city judicial system "a relic of 19th-century politics" that should be taken over by the state.

Schmoke made the comments at his weekly news conference, one day after 19 officials representing city and state criminal justice agencies met to develop solutions to a city court logjam that has resulted in the release of murder, robbery and drug suspects.

The Wednesday meeting with chief city and state administrative judges included Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Schmoke sent three city representatives to the meeting, including Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. But the mayor's absence at the forum was glaring, participants said.

"The city's cooperation is absolutely necessary," Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, said yesterday.

While the number of city court cases has increased, the city's share of funding for the courts over the past three years has shrunk by $1.4 million to $7 million, court administrators said. "The mayor is aware of the situation," Kaplan added. "The fact that he wasn't there symbolically has some significance."

Schmoke defended his absence, stating that his position on the management of the city courts has not changed.

The former Baltimore state's attorney has long called for the state to assume control of the system to unify state district and city circuit courts under one jurisdiction. All criminal cases flow through the District Court, where misdemeanors are adjudicated. The Circuit Court deals with felony cases.

In addition, city administration requests to relieve court crowding by starting night courts and community courts and having state's attorneys, rather than police, charge suspects have not been implemented by circuit and district court administrators, Schmoke said.

"What we are calling a crisis in the Circuit Court has been well-known and predicted for many years," Schmoke said.

"I don't know how many people you need to say what the city's position is."

Yesterday, Schmoke called for:

Night courts. The city wants night court in the Central Booking and Intake Center to more swiftly deal with cases. State district judges have resisted the recommendation, noting that similar police District Courts were abolished years ago because of concerns about familiarity between judges and defense attorneys. Half of all charges brought by city police are being dismissed in court, cases that could be removed from the system earlier if judges could throw out the charges at Central Booking courts, Schmoke said.

Community courts. Established in places such as New York to deal with minor nuisance crimes, such as loitering, community courts have been lauded in helping cities reduce violent crime. Baltimore received $355,000 in federal and nonprofit agency grants to establish the community courts two years ago but they have yet to be created. Parties are now bickering over where the court should be located.

A change in charging suspects. Police officers charge the people they arrest, resulting in officers being off the street for hours as a case is processed. Frazier supports giving the charging responsibility to the state's attorney's office to weed out weak cases that are later dismissed in the courts. Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy says she needs more staff and permission from the state's highest court to change the process.

State control of city courts. During his campaign last year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening pledged to take over the Circuit Court system throughout the state, including Baltimore. On Wednesday, Glendening pledged $2.5 million in immediate support to create additional city courtroom space and hire more prosecutors and public defenders. Schmoke wants the governor to take over the Baltimore court system as soon as possible, noting that half the inmates in state prisons come from the city.

The Glendening administration recently introduced legislation in the House of Delegates and Senate to establish the legal mechanism to assume the city courts, a process that will take several years. Until that time, court leaders say the responsibility of operating the system remains with the city.

"They're responsible for our operations," Kaplan said of the city. The state "taking over the function is just changing the paymaster."

The state has increasingly taken over city government functions because of the shrinking of Baltimore's resources that resulted from an exodus of residents and businesses. Schmoke likened the court logjam to a similar problem experienced in city jails. Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer agreed to take over the city jail after crowding resulted in inmates with less serious offenses being released. Last year, the city entered into an agreement to share the responsibility of city schools with the state because of deteriorating conditions. Schmoke wants the same state intervention at the Circuit Court level.

"If we just tinker with it," Schmoke said, "we'll be having the same conversations in 2010."

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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