Night court is the solution to backlog in city system...

SATURDAY MAILBOX

February 27, 1999

Night court is the solution to backlog in city system; Getting away with MURDER

With all the concern about the breakdown in city courts threatening public safety, serious con- sideration should be given to the adoption of night court in Baltimore.

While top officials are scouring to find or create temporary locations, negotiating with downtown business owners to convert vacant space could take time and money. That time could allow additional serious criminal charges to be dismissed because of trial delays and other procedural missteps.

Using the existing court locations would solve many of the anticipated problems.

Baltimore Circuit Court Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan and Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. have offered retired or staff attorneys to fill the void. Additional clerical staffing could be readily trained with seasoned staff at current locations.

Aside from avoiding the expense of alternative locations, the use of existing facilities could result in major cost savings to the state.

If this happens, we may hear a judge sentence an individual to a 10-year term in the Maryland Penitentiary years -- while working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift.

Wayne Koczorowski, Baltimore

According to the article "Mayor has his own fix for courts" (Feb. 19), Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's leading recommendation was to establish a night court in central booking. That was also recommended in your outstanding editorial "Getting away with murder."

I'd like to examine more closely why that recommendation would lead to fewer murders and less crime.

Lack of such a court leads to an overwhelmed court system, which in turn leads to inappropriate postponements and dismissals. The critical point is that if guilty defendants could plead guilty when they are booked, the number of cases going to trial would be significantly reduced. The resulting more effective court system would discourage guilty defendants from going to trial, hoping for postponements and eventual dismissals.

No matter how weak a case is, trial is scheduled 30 days later. Police, witnesses, defenders, prosecutors and judges must prepare. This is a waste of time and energy for a case that will be dismissed when it appears in court. And no matter how strong the case, if witnesses, including the police, do not show up for trial, the case is dismissed.

Lack of a judge at central booking to inform defendants of their responsibility to have a defense lawyer at trial leads to postponements when a defendant shows up without an attorney. Too many judges, in apparent arrogance and in spite of law to the contrary, do not find the commissioners' records adequate and postpone such cases -- another waste of time and energy.

More postponements for a case mean more frustration for police and witnesses. This will cause them to stop showing up, and that makes it more likely that the case will be dismissed. When minor cases are dismissed, swift and sure punishment is lacking. This encourages continued criminal behavior, which becomes more frequent and more serious.

Ed Rutkowski, Baltimore

There is an easy, no-cost solution to the criminal case backlog. To understand the need and the solution, one need only sit in a courtroom for a day or so.

First, while court is scheduled to begin at 9: 30 a.m., most judges don't come into the courtroom until well after 10 o'clock. They break for lunch for well over an hour, then they break at 4: 30 p.m. for the day. If you walk into a courtroom in the afternoon, it is likely that the judge is not on the bench. Four hours of actual courtroom time is a lot. And when the judges come out, they spend considerable time on matters that could be handled administratively, such as arraignments, postponements, guilty pleas, motions and other preliminary matters.

Why can't the judges come on the bench at 9: 30 and begin a trial? Administrative matters could be handled by court clerks, the administrative judge and masters. Even lawyers could be pressed into service during this period of crisis.

Administrative matters could be presented by para-professionals, including third-year law students, who are permitted to appear in court on a supervised basis and could handle postponements and other minor matters that attorneys handle.

While judges will tell you that they spend out-of-court time researching and writing, the majority of them rely upon their law clerks to do this. Every judge in the Circuit Court has a full-time secretary and personal law clerk, in addition to the courtroom clerk.

If judges were actually trying cases for six hours a day instead of three or four hours, and if 20 of the 30 judges were handling criminal cases, that would add 200 to 300 hours a week of trial time.

Rather than creating more courts, judges and other expensive positions, we can easily make what we already have work far more efficiently.

Sue Feder, Towson

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