$17.8 million hammer to force court reform

Legislature: Strings attached to budgets

Oct. 1 is deadline for plan to revamp city criminal justice system.

Getting Away With Murder

April 15, 1999

NOT CONTENT with stop-gap measures, the Maryland General Assembly wants to revamp Baltimore's malfunctioning criminal-justice system. Legislators have frozen $17.8 million until they are satisfied that comprehensive reform is under way. To free that money, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell must submit by Oct. 1 a blueprint to overhaul the city's problematic prosecution and court practices.

"We want a total plan -- nuts, bolts, everything," Del. Peter Franchot said after the House of Delegates and Senate conference committee agreed to the unusually tough budget language.

This resolve is a welcome response to The Sun's editorials calling attention to the city's criminal-justice crisis. It shows elected officials in Maryland share our concern about the breakdown of law and order, even though some top judges and bureaucrats continue to discount the problem.

The General Assembly rarely interferes with the judiciary. In this case, though, it ordered Chief Judge Bell to deliver quarterly status reports on reforms, beginning Jan. 1. "The plan shall include performance measures and a time frame for implementation and results. The plan shall also identify the person responsible for each element of the plan," the budget amendment decreed.

Baltimore's Circuit Court has recently begun reducing its massive case backlogs. Judges have also cracked down on postponements in order to prevent a repeat of scandalous incidents in which murder and armed robbery suspects had charges dropped solely because their trials were delayed too long. Meanwhile, the city registered 25 percent fewer homicides in the first quarter of 1999 than during the same period last year.

The budget language urges Chief Judge Bell and others in the criminal justice system to act on a laundry list of problems, in addition to backlogs and postponements. Among key items, it asks them to:

Consider operating night courts to quickly resolve minor cases.

Give the state's attorney, rather than the police, final approval of charges against suspects.

Try Circuit Court appeals on the District Court record, instead of duplicating a previous trial.

Provide representation by the Public Defender's Office to indigents at arraignments and bail hearings. Although a bill that would have done just that was killed by the bail bond lobby, the budget appropriated more than $500,000 for pilot programs.

Seek increased funding from Baltimore City for the State's Attorney's Office. The legislature gave that agency an extra $500,0000 grant to speed up computerization.

Toughen parole and probation supervision.

The budget language also gives official recognition to the recently created Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council by including it among agencies with which Chief Judge Bell has to work in developing reform plans. That voluntary group yesterday appointed John Henry Lewin Jr., a partner at Venable, Baetjer & Howard and a past president of the Bar Association of Baltimore City, as its unpaid project coordinator. The legislature gave the council $200,000 and expects the first progress report July 1.

With $4.1 million in supplemental allocations from the governor's office, efforts to repair Baltimore's criminal-justice system can now begin in earnest. There will be resistance, but through its unusual intervention, the General Assembly has shown leadership that will make reform easier.

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