Criminal-justice crisis triggers furious fight

Reform: Bar association helping to select a top jurist who will direct cooperation among bureaucracies

Getting away with Murder.

April 06, 1999

LARGELY HIDDEN from public view, a furious fight has taken place. Its principals: Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and a number of legislators headed by Del. Peter Franchot. The crux: What to do about Baltimore City's malfunctioning criminal-justice system?

The tug-of-war is now largely over and the Bar Association of Baltimore City, after considerable maneuvering, has been chosen to act as an impartial middleman. It is in the process of selecting a top jurist to oversee voluntary, long-term reforms among the city courts, prosecutors, police and corrections bureaucracies. If all sides can agree on the nominee, the identity of the facilitator will be announced April 14, when the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is scheduled to have its next meeting.

A major reason for the behind-the-scenes squabbling was that no two parties seem to agree on the seriousness of Baltimore's criminal-justice problems or what to do about them. They still do not agree. Some, including Chief Judge Bell, argue that measures taken by the Circuit Court are adequately addressing case backlogs and endless postponements. Others, including Lieutenant Governor Townsend and Delegate Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, contend that sustained measures are needed to repair breakdowns detailed in recent Sun editorials and news articles.

Because of this lack of consensus, efforts to legislate criminal-justice reforms failed to win adequate support in this year's General Assembly. Gov. Parris N. Glendening did not see the state takeover of Circuit Courts as a top priority, and the bail bond lobby killed a bill that would have guaranteed indigent defendants legal counsel soon after charging, alleviating unnecessarily long pretrial incarceration and chronic jail overcrowding.

If anything, these defeats should give greater urgency to reforms that can be implemented independent of the General Assembly. Many changes do not require additional legislation.

For example, a simple $300,000 allocation will soon allow a public defender to be present at bail hearings at the Central Booking and Intake Center, achieving some of the goals of the bill defeated by the bail bond lobby.

Similarly, reduction in the city police's huge court-related overtime spending could free resources to deal with problems at central booking, the point where much of the criminal-justice system's backup begins.

The soon-to-be-named Criminal Justice Coordinating Council facilitator will play a pivotal role in efforts to promote cooperation and holistic problem-solving among the overlapping court and law-enforcement bureaucracies.

The task will be awesome, requiring diplomacy as well as craftiness. But unless fundamental corrective measures are embraced now, inertia will take hold again and produce yet another acute criminal-justice emergency. Baltimore cannot afford to have that happen.

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