Shortly after becoming Baltimore mayor in 1971, William Donald Schaefer created the Mayor's Coordinating Council of Criminal Justice to bring judges, police, jailers and prosecutors together on a regular basis.
Schaefer's goal was to ensure that all city law enforcement agencies were on the same page when it came to fighting crime.
But shortly after his election more than a decade ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke removed the council's "coordinating" function, saying that he lacked the authority to tell noncity agencies such as the state district courts what to do.
Baltimore court administrators trying to end the bottleneck in city courts want Schmoke to resume the coordinating powers of the justice council, which during the past decade has become a vehicle to obtain grant funding and advise on crime prevention.
"We've had to step forward because there is a vacuum," Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell told City Council members at a recent hearing. "The Mayor's Coordinating Council of Criminal Justice is for the purpose of our trying to come together as a group."
Trial delays in city courts have resulted in killers, robbers and drug dealers being freed because of violations of the state's 180-day speedy trial law. Improving the system gained urgency last month when The Sun detailed the case of armed robbery and carjacking suspects Christopher Willis and Kevin Cox. The two were freed after a judge dismissed the cases against them.
Critics of the criminal justice system say turf wars over responsibilities and funding have developed over the past decade because of a lack of direction that has left institutions ignoring each other. Mitchell, who took over responsibility for the city criminal court docket in January, took the lead in bringing law enforcement and justice agencies together to begin resolving the problems.
Although the group continues to meet, Mitchell wants the mayor to resume the council's coordinating responsibility if justice system efficiency is to be maintained.
Schaefer, who is considering another possible mayoral bid in September, said he agrees that the justice council oversight is critical for catching, prosecuting and trying criminals most efficiently.
"The coordination was the most important feature so you could avoid exactly what we have," said Schaefer, now the Maryland comptroller. "The police have to be talking to the prosecutors and the prosecutors have to be talking to the probation officers."
Schmoke, however, is not convinced. The mayor recently rejected the notion of reinstating the council's responsibility to keep track of the city justice system, even going as far as to officially remove the word "coordinating" from its name.
"I didn't want to give the public the false impression that one individual had the authority to require the criminal justice system to work together," Schmoke said. "Because legally, nobody has that authority."
Schmoke, a former city state's attorney, countered Schaefer's recollection of the council's success, noting that the state takeover of the city jail occurred only after Schmoke began releasing criminals serving time for lesser crimes.
"It never coordinated criminal justice," Schmoke said of the council. "Whenever there was a crisis in the courts, people would get together, but it never coordinated the operation of the criminal justice system."
Schmoke has pushed for the state to take over the city courts, saying that it makes more sense for the court system to be under one jurisdiction. State district courts handle misdemeanor cases while city circuit courts try felonies.
Critics such as Schaefer, however, accuse Schmoke of abdicating his responsibility. Schaefer said he, too, wanted the state to take over the court system, but until it happens, Schmoke is responsible.
Pub Date: 3/15/99