Controversial changes ease jail overcrowding

Central booking: City pre-trial inmate population falls below lockup capacity, surprising officials

Getting away with Murder

April 18, 1999

THE CHANGE is so amazing Commissioner LaMont Flanagan can scarcely believe it. After years of dangerous overcrowding, the Central Booking and Intake Center is below its capacity of 811 inmates.

There are several reasons. Most important are these: More poor defendants are being released to await trial because they have access to free lawyers who can argue on their behalf. And judges operating a court at central booking have sped up resolution of cases that otherwise would have dragged on for weeks.

In addition, the number of bookings has decreased as police and the State's Attorney's Office have started screening cases systematically.

These innovations are controversial. For years, District Court judges refused to use the courtroom at the lockup, arguing it was not needed and its location would prejudice hearings. Flexing its muscles, the bail bond lobby -- fearing loss of business -- just last month was able to kill in committee a bill that would have broadened legal representation available to the poor at central booking.

The lobby's victory, however, quickly turned into a defeat. The full General Assembly, impressed with the results of an eight-monthdemonstration program funded by the Abell Foundation, supported the governor's request for more than $500,000 to provide further legal representation to non-violent defendants with limited means.

Just weeks earlier, Baltimore's criminal-justice crisis had forced the District Court to staff the court at central booking. Although that judge -- and another from the Circuit Court -- only started in mid-February and sit for a total of two days a week, the change has brought dramatic results.

After often reaching a population of 1,100 in recent years, the lockup has had fewer than 770 inmates for much of this month, saving taxpayers about $20,000 a day.

The typical suspect used to spend 47 days, on average, in pre-trial incarceration before a case was heard. Yet most were ultimately released without being convicted of a crime.

If central booking's new, lower population is not an anomaly, the state will have satisfied a two-decades-old federal court order to reduce overcrowding -- without building costly additional facilities.

This accomplishment shows that Baltimore's crippled criminal-justice system can be reformed if bureaucracies cooperate and implement common-sense solutions.

This is a particularly important lesson as the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council with its new project coordinator, John Henry Lewin Jr., begins systematic efforts to end the crisis. The General Assembly has set a July 1 deadline for the first progress report. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell is also under an Oct. 1 deadline to produce a long-term reform plan for the legislature.

These reform efforts should be aimed at increasing the criminal-justice bureaucracies' sense of a unified mission. The loss of that common purpose is a key reason for Baltimore's current crisis -- from its high homicide rate to its malfunctioning courts.

The Central Booking and Intake Center is a good example of the lack of shared purpose. Few coordinated efforts were made to resolve its chronic overcrowding until recently. The various agencies whose operations touch on the center -- the District and Circuit courts, police, state's attorney and public defender -- had little cause to worry about its problems or how costly they were to taxpayers. The booking center's allocation, after all, came from the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Even if drastic savings were realized, the budgets of other criminal-justice bureaucracies stood to gain nothing.

This kind of compartmentalized thinking has to be changed if there is to be a comprehensive reform of Baltimore's criminal justice apparatus. The goal must be a seamless system that encourages innovative solutions and teamwork that guarantees swift delivery of justice.

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