Getting Aways With Murder

February 28, 1999

On Feb. 14, The Sun published ``Getting away with murder,'' a two-page editorial that called for the repair of Baltimore's broken criminal justice system. The editorial also made other specific recommendations aimed at reducing the city's number of murders, which has topped 300 for nine years. We invited officials to respond to the editorial and its recommendations. These are the responses we received.

Parris N. Glendening and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Most Maryland residents are enjoying lower crime rates. But in Baltimore, Maryland's largest urban center, the criminal justice system is in crisis. While various interested parties continue disputing accountability for backlogged cases, felons continue to be released to the streets.

When we read in The Sun about the backlogs and delays and dismissals in the court system, our first reaction was, ``What if someone in my family was the victim of a terrible crime and we were forced to watch the person responsible go free because of an overwhelmed bureaucracy?''

There is no more time for blame, and no more time to wait for long-term solutions. We must all take responsibility and act decisively now.

Already our budget provides $383,000 for additional prosecutors, and we will submit an additional $128,000 so they can begin tackling the backlog of felony cases immediately.

Although funding for Circuit Court buildings and other infrastructure is a local function, under these urgent circumstances we are prepared to fund temporary court facilities.

All of the city's elected officials, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, administrators and other state and local agencies - including the state-operated Central Booking and Intake Center - must work together to devise a comprehensive management plan that addresses challenges facing the system.

Ultimately, the success of the courts depends in large part on our ability to cut crime and drug addiction, which fuel the large number of cases clogging the dockets.

Parris N. Glendening and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend are governor and lieutenant governor of Maryland, respectively.

Patricia C. Jessamy

Your editorial concluded that Baltimore's high homicide rate is due to a ``breakdown of the normal defenses put into place to protect a city's residents: police, prosecutors, courts and corrections institutions.''

While I agree that the criminal justice system is seriously malfunctioning and we all share some of the blame, crime in general - homicides, specifically - are the result of far more complicated failures than the criminal justice system.

As a community, we must invest resources in prevention, drug treatment and early intervention for at-risk youth.

While law enforcement is a response to crime, it can and should be more proactive and offensive rather than reactive and defensive.

You acknowledged that David Kennedy has been working in Baltimore for the past 10 months as a part of the Safe and Sound Campaign, a multi-million-dollar drive to create a safer environment for children and youths. What you failed to report is that I am heading the Youth Gun Violence Reduction initiative.

I have assembled a team of representatives of law enforcement and criminal justice agencies to work for the success of this initiative.

Over the past 10 months, many changes have been implemented, resulting in greater efficiency and effectiveness as we deal with violent criminals.

Your editorial points to ``turf fights,'' but you did not acknowledge that we are all working together on this very critical criminal justice initiative.

Your editorial concluded that because arresting police officers generally decide what charges the defendant will face that many officers are overcharging suspects and that prosecutors need to become involved in charging.

The Baltimore State's Attorney's Office does charge criminals at the Circuit Court by way of criminal information or indictment. We have nine attorneys who screen felonies at the District Court and handle preliminary hearings.

Were these attorneys not so assigned, the problems would be much worse. While I support prosecutorial charging, I also believe that a rule change is necessary.

The issue of what happens to defendants who are brought into the Central Booking and Intake Center after an ``on view arrest'' by police presents numerous legal challenges that Maryland Rule 4-211 does not address. The rule states ``when a defendant is arrested without a warrant, the officer who has custody of the defendant shall forthwith cause a statement of charges to be filed.''

There are no provisions in the rule or imposed by law that allow prosecutorial review or alteration. A proposal is being prepared that would permit prosecutors to charge suspects. If approved, additional staffing and funding would be necessary.

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