Funding on hold for court reforms

State legislators wield `budget club' to force city courts to improve

$17.8 million at stake

April 15, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

For the past three months, state lawmakers have threatened to use what they call a "budget club" to force sweeping changes in Baltimore's crippled courts. Yesterday, they made good on that threat.

Lawmakers said during a meeting of city and state justice officials that $17.8 million will be withheld from their budgets unless a detailed plan to improve the city's court system is put into place.

While praising court officials for reducing the city's backlog of criminal cases, one key lawmaker told the officials that he and other legislators want assurances that the progress will continue and the chaos that led to dismissals of cases because of trial delays will never be repeated.

"This is a crisis. This is an emergency," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the public safety subcommittee that funds criminal justice agencies. He told the 35 officials that he hoped they would not ignore the "budget club."

Franchot's announcement came after the General Assembly on Monday approved budget language that would withhold the money unless Maryland's chief judge and the so-called Criminal Justice Coordinating Council develop a comprehensive plan by Oct. 1.

Yesterday the council named a project facilitator to aid in reforming the courts. The council is composed of city and state justice agencies formed in January after murder charges were dismissed against four suspects because of trial delays.

Baltimore lawyer John Henry Lewin Jr., a law partner at Venable, Baetjer & Howard, will work as a volunteer with a small staff to help solve problems in the city courts. Lewin, a one-time assistant state's attorney, is a commercial litigator focusing on business law and contract matters.

Lewin is walking into a difficult situation. Under budget language adopted Monday, a progress report must be submitted by the council to the state's budget and judiciary committees by July 1, or the promised $17.8 million could be withheld.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, acknowledged yesterday that lawmakers do not have clear authority to stop agencies from receiving the money. But he said if officials fail to comply with the request, the money could be slashed from the next year's budget.

The General Assembly "certainly has a long memory," Rawlings said.

He also said the legislature is sending a clear message to the criminal justice agencies: "Before you spend a dime of [the funds], you have to restore public confidence with a strategic plan."

Robert M. Bell, Maryland's Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, has long opposed the budget language. In letters to lawmakers, he has called it "unnecessary" and "intrusive." He has also warned that lawmakers could violate the separation-of-powers doctrine if they meddle too much in the affairs of the judiciary.

Bell's spokeswoman, Sally W. Rankin, said yesterday that the chief judge finds the budget language "absolutely unnecessary."

As the legislature threatens to withhold money, lawmakers this session approved funding for long-neglected city criminal justice agencies. The General Assembly set aside $4 million to fund the Office of the Public Defender and the construction of three new courtrooms, among other projects. Of that money, $300,000 will go to the public defender's office to represent clients at bail hearings at the city's jail.

Also yesterday, representatives of agencies reported that some early reforms are showing results. Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who is in charge of the city's criminal docket, said the case backlog has been reduced by 15 percent during the past three months.

LaMont W. Flanagan, who runs Baltimore's jail, said that the number of inmates at the city's booking center is at a record low. For the past two years, he said, population at the center has hovered around 1,100, nearly 300 over capacity. Now, there are about 700 suspects being held, he said.

Flanagan said one factor might be the recent appointment of a second judge to process the misdemeanor cases at the jail.

Prosecutors also have begun immediately reviewing charges filed by police in an effort to weed weak cases. In the past three weeks, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said, her office has reviewed some 475 arrests and dropped about 95 of them.

Pub Date: 4/15/99

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