New institute to study ailing Baltimore courts

3-year, Abell-funded search for solutions

May 27, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

To help repair Baltimore's broken court system, the Abell Foundation is funding a new criminal justice institute to study the system and offer solutions to a series of long-standing problems.

The new Maryland Criminal Justice Administration will be directed by former U.S. Attorney Jervis S. Finney, who headed the ethics investigation of former state Sen. Larry Young last year. The justice group will study the court system for three years, making recommendations along the way.

"It is a major public function that nobody is really watching," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which will donate $250,000 a year toward the project. "Any public function unwatched will not be as effective as if it were watched."

Embry said he has long been concerned about the administration of justice at Baltimore's courthouse, and he wanted someone with impressive credentials to examine the problems.

He found that person in Finney, a former prosecutor, state senator and Baltimore County councilman who is a partner at one of Baltimore's leading law firms, Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver. Finney will leave the firm to preside over the justice group, and he will no longer practice law in state courtrooms after a 41-year legal career.

Finney, 67, said he was excited by the prospect. "Creating efficiency in the criminal justice process is the hallmark of good government," he said.

Besides the Abell Foundation, the Rollins-Luetkemeyer Foundation will underwrite the work of the nonprofit organization, which has secured $300,000 in grants. Finney said the Ober Kaler firm will provide office space and support staff for the group.

Out of control

The formation of the group comes as a council of criminal justice leaders tries to repair a court system that has spun out of control, resulting in jail overcrowding and dismissals of cases -- including those involving murder -- because prosecutors and judges failed to bring criminal suspects to trial on time.

Members of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council said yesterday that they've discussed the project with Finney recently. Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, supervisor of the city's criminal docket and council founder, said he'd welcome help from the institute. "They may be able to bring to the discussion certain resources and perspectives untainted by a jurisdictional bias," he said.

Since January, court administrators have labored to fix Baltimore's beleaguered court system. That month, a Baltimore judge dismissed murder charges against four suspects because their cases had languished in the courthouse for three years while they waited for a trial.

The Sun published a series of articles detailing how court officials ignored warning signs that the system was on the verge of collapse, and examined other criminal cases that had been dismissed because of procedural errors by prosecutors and judges.

Court and state officials began to attack the problems, cracking down on trial delays at the courthouse and bringing in retired judges to hear backlogged cases. They also set aside money to create new courtrooms and hire more public defense attorneys, and they resurrected the coordinating council to draft long-term solutions to the problems.

Lines of communication

One key reform -- allowing prosecutors instead of police to charge suspects -- could be in trouble, prosecutors say. Court and state officials believe the change could clear crowded jails and court dockets, because prosecutors would determine which cases should be pursued and which should be dropped. A preliminary study by prosecutors showed that one of every five arrests that Baltimore police make are not worth taking to court.

Assistant State's Attorney Page Croyder, in charge of reviewing arrests at the city jail, said the department's new policy of filling out charging documents from district station houses rather than the city jail means prosecutors have fewer chances to meet with officers to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of their cases.

Croyder said she could improve the lines of communication if Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier adequately staffed the jail with "liaison officers," who can track down police officers if prosecutors have questions about charges. Several of the seven liaison officers are retiring next month, she said, and Frazier has not committed to assigning more.

Robert W. Weinhold Jr., spokesman for the city Police Department, said he did not know how many liaison officers were retiring. But, he said, those who do will be replaced.

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