Leaders drop the ball on charging suspects

Dispute: A crucial step to reform is blocked by lack of communication, fuzzy interpretation of the law.

Getting away with MURDER

February 21, 1999

IN THE fall, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke met with Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy to address the problem of Baltimore's gridlocked courts. While participants' recollections of the meeting vary, all now say that the key to alleviating clogged courts is for police to turn over the job of charging criminals to prosecutors in the State's Attorney's Office. That way, fewer questionable charges would be filed by police. This would reduce the burden on the criminal justice system and focus precious resources on legitimate cases.

Mr. Schmoke recalls a decision was made that the State's Attorney's Office would assume the charging function swiftly. Mrs. Jessamy remembers only a discussion of the change. Mr. Frazier recalls consensus that the change would be a good idea.

Months later, nothing has happened.

Ms. Jessamy contends she has no authority to take over the charging of suspects under rules governing Maryland courts.

Her reservations came as a surprise last week to lame-duck Mayor Schmoke, a former prosecutor.

"I thought we had resolved the issue," he said. "I guess I should have followed through."

Left wondering

The incident highlights one of the main weaknesses of Mr. Schmoke's 12 years as mayor: After crucial meetings, officials are often left wondering what, if anything, was settled. No timetable exists, no plan for action, no designation of responsibilities or staff follow-up.

The confusion over transferring the criminal charging function from the Police Department to the State's Attorney's Office also highlights the ways in which misunderstandings and inefficiencies in Baltimore's criminal justice system contribute to its inability to attack Baltimore's frightening homicide problem.

In a two-page editorial Feb. 14, "Getting away with murder," The Sun described how -- at a time when many of America's big cities have recorded significant decreases in homicides -- killings in Baltimore last year exceeded 300 for the ninth consecutive year.

Among The Sun's recommendations was that the charging function be transferred to the prosecutor's office. In many other cities, this practice has permitted early screening of charges, resulting in faster resolution of cases and an easing of overburdened courts. The change was proposed for Baltimore late last year by a judge and a court administrator, both from Philadelphia, who studied the inadequacies of Baltimore's Circuit Court.

Fuzzy interpretation

The Maryland courts' rules committee has scheduled a March 3 meeting to hear Ms. Jessamy's concerns about transferring responsibility for charging suspects to her office. But so far Ms. Jessamy has submitted no draft proposal for new language that would allow her office to take over the function from police. She says her staff is working on the matter and will have "people going to Philadelphia" this week to see how that city handled a similar change nearly 20 years ago.

Several members of the rules committee are puzzled. They say the Maryland court rule in question -- Rule 4-211 -- is worded broadly enough to allow her to charge criminals without any changes. A subsection states: "A State's Attorney may file an information [charging document]," instead of an arresting officer. In fact, prosecutors in several other jurisdictions, including Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, occasionally charge under the very rule Ms. Jessamy questions.

"As I read that rule, the prosecutor can place the charges," says Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., a respected legal scholar who heads the rules committee.

Is Ms. Jessamy wrong? Not necessarily. Is she overly cautious? Perhaps -- although some jurists understand her concerns.

Not only may the wording of Rule 4-211 be an issue, but Article 27 of the Criminal Code, which governs arrests, might require amendment because it repeatedly refers to police officers' charging authority.

"There have to be changes all around," Ms. Jessamy acknowledges.

Changes to the Criminal Code would require action from the General Assembly. Yet Ms. Jessamy has sought no changes from the legislature. Even if she does, time is running out for action during this year's legislative session.

Not working together

Last week, an extraordinary gathering of law officials was held at the Mitchell Courthouse downtown. Its aim: to begin developing short- and long-term solutions to Baltimore's malfunctioning criminal-justice system. Missing from the meeting was Mayor Schmoke, who pleaded a schedule conflict.

The mayor's absence underscored a long-standing snag. The various criminal justice agencies simply don't work together.

Petty turf fights and jealousies have been common. An example: The contemplated shift in the charging function would probably not be so crucial if a judge were assigned to Baltimore's $54 million, state-run Central Booking and Intake Center to sort out cases expeditiously.

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