Money tiff threatens streamlining effort

Central Booking: State's Attorney Jessamy says full charging reform may have to wait for another year

Getting away with MURDER

May 25, 1999

STATE'S ATTORNEY Patricia C. Jessamy says insufficient funds may force her to delay for another year a crucial reform to unclog Baltimore's gridlocked courts.

"The only thing that is up in the air is funding," she says of a change that would allow prosecutors, instead of police, to press charges against offenders and weed out cases without merit.

For more than six months, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier and Ms. Jessamy have agreed that the key to alleviating court crowding is for police to turn over the job of charging offenders to prosecutors in the State's Attorney's Office. But that reform still has not happened.

At first, Ms. Jessamy said she could not do anything unless she was given specific legal powers to implement the change. Even though several of Maryland's top judges disagreed with her legal assessment, the Court of Appeals granted her wish April 12.

After her office started systematically screening about 10 percent of the cases systematically and judges were brought in to hear evidence, chronic pretrial overcrowding at the Central Booking and Intake Center was eliminated, with substantial savings to taxpayers.

This progress is now threatened. Ms. Jessamy says that because she did not receive an additional $1 million she was counting on, she will not have enough money in her next budget to expand screening July 1. Instead of reviewing charges 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, she will only have prosecutors at Central Booking one-third of the time.

Some city officials contend Ms. Jessamy's $16.9 million budget has enough money for her to fully take over charging functions. The dispute comes to a head today at a City Council budget hearing.

This squabble must be resolved without further delay. Ever since efforts to end Baltimore's criminal justice crisis began in February, the takeover of the charging function by the State's Attorney's Office has been among sought-after reform remedies. It has already been delayed too long.

The Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is under orders from the General Assembly to report by July 1 on measures taken to overhaul the city's troubled prosecution and court practices. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell faces an Oct. 1 deadline for his blueprint on a comprehensive reform. This process cannot be endangered by a relatively minor budget dispute.

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