Our courts need leadership now, not more excuses

Getting away with MURDER

February 25, 1999|By John M. Glynn

RECENT news reports, culminating in an unusual two-page editorial in The Sun on Feb. 14 about the city's homicide rate, have underscored problems in Baltimore's criminal justice system.

Even Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has agreed that "systemic changes" are in order, though we remain in the dark about exactly what these changes would be.

Problems in the criminal justice system did not arise suddenly, or occur in a vacuum.

It's time for those of us in the criminal justice system to tell the public the truth.

What drives the criminal justice system is the constitutional right of the great bulk of criminal defendants to demand a trial.

Obviously, the system can handle only a limited number of such demands. If the accused criminal doesn't know this, his attorney will tell him.

So the system functions like a market -- one with huge sentencing discounts offered to those who are willing to give up their right to a trial. Our system would collapse without plea bargaining, something the public doesn't like.

Providing more money for an overwhelmed system is of little interest to an already heavily taxed public. So what might we suggest that would make a significant and cost-effective difference? We need to take steps to employ the resources we have more efficiently. Toward this end I suggest the following:

While homicide cases get headlines, it's the drug cases that clog the system. We must decide if drug addiction will be treated as a criminal or a public-health problem. We are wasting resources by pretending to treat addicts as criminals but not punishing them for their crimes.

We must determine whether our current two-tiered court system -- District and Circuit courts -- is necessary or whether it needlessly wastes resources.

Efficiency demands that each case be resolved with a minimum of court appearances. The current system produces exactly the opposite result.

Our rules of procedure must be evaluated to eliminate needless excuses for delaying trials. While we must protect the rights of all charged with crimes, those rights do not include the right to win through delay.

Baltimore's State's Attorney's Office -- not the police -- must decide what charges a defendant will face. Too much court time is wasted on weak cases that are never prosecuted.

We must demand that petty squabbling, such as that between the State's Attorney's Office and the Police Department, cease. It really doesn't matter who is right; such turf battles and finger pointing are unbecoming and unproductive.

To be effective, we need the most efficient information-processing resources available. While our courtrooms are drowning in criminals, our clerks' offices are drowning in paper.

We need an information-processing plan that will coordinate the entire system, not try to upgrade it by bits and pieces. And it needs to be put on the fast track, rather than linger in the state's clumsy procurement process.

The problems encountered in the new and frequently malfunctioning Central Booking and Intake Center and the ill-conceived and poorly realized video bail system are merely examples of the waste of public funds that result from poor planning.

This dismal situation calls for outstanding leadership. We need leaders who will deal with trouble, not hide from it.

The lifeboats going out of the city are already full. I suggest we get together and start bailing. I have sometimes described my job as a District Court judge as "presiding over the demise of Western civilization." Please tell me I'm only kidding.

Baltimore District Judge John M. Glynn has served on the bench for five years.

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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