Memo to courts, prosecutors: reform must happen soon

Getting Away With Murder

June 09, 1999|By Howard P. Rawlings and Peter Franchot

BALTIMORE'S CRIMINAL justice system is in the midst of a crisis. In the past year, we've seen a spate of judges setting defendants charged with serious crimes free because their cases had been repeatedly postponed, and news reports of a large backlog of criminal cases and management inefficiencies, suggesting a need to overhaul the city's prosecution and court practices.

The citizens of Baltimore are not receiving the level of criminal justice they deserve.

Concern for public safety, the integrity of the criminal-justice system and responsibility to taxpayers prompted the General Assembly to demand accountability from those in charge of the criminal-justice system and to provide additional resources to address the immediate problems.

This crisis results from system-wide problems and requires system-wide solutions. To that end, the General Assembly is refusing to release $17.8 million in additional funds for the criminal-justice system until lawmakers see evidence of comprehensive reform.

For that money to be released, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell must submit by Oct. 1 a plan for overhauling the city's criminal-justice system.

However, by requiring the plan, the General Assembly reiterated that additional funds alone will not resolve the problem. Rather, criminal-justice system leaders must make substantive reforms to use resources more effectively and efficiently. With additional allocations from the governor's office, the General Assembly provided $4.1 million to help bring about such reforms.

These resources will be used to increase the use of the courtroom at the Central Booking and Intake Center; to build, operate and staff additional courtrooms; to operate a pilot project to represent indigent defendants at bail review hearings; and to support the newly reconstituted Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which will hold its monthly meeting in the east annex of the Clarence Mitchell courthouse this afternoon.

Key players in the criminal-justice system have started to lay the groundwork for systemic reform. For example, the state's attorney's office increasingly has taken over police responsibility for charging suspects to weed out weak cases immediately. This must be expanded for vital reform.

Also, the court system has placed a district judge and a circuit judge in the Central Booking and Intake Center courtroom two days a week. The Baltimore Circuit Court increased the number of judges hearing criminal cases and created two central arraignment courts.

These and other efforts have been fruitful: The Circuit Court reduced its inventory of criminal cases by 14.4 percent and reduced the number of defendants awaiting trial by 12.1 percent during the first quarter of this year. The number of criminal cases pending dropped from 9,156 in January to 7,838 in March.

Also, overcrowding at Central Booking has eased, with the average daily population falling from 1,032 in November 1998 to 753 in April 1999.

Although management of the Baltimore criminal caseload has improved, the legislature, the courts, prosecutors and the public must continue to demand an efficient and effectively run criminal-justice system.

By holding some funds until a comprehensive reform plan is produced, the General Assembly has demanded accountability. If meaningful and lasting improvements in the criminal-justice system are not made, the stakeholders -- courts and prosecutors -- may ultimately face greater General Assembly involvement.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Del. Peter Franchot is chairman of the subcommittee on public safety and administration.

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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