City arrest reforms to start July 1

Prosecutors to review police action in districts downtown, on east side

Crowded courts at issue

Monitoring keeps weak cases from clogging system, Jessamy says

June 16, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Baltimore prosecutors will begin reviewing thousands of police arrests next month in a reform effort that the city's police chief acknowledged has halted officers' making weak arrests that can keep suspects in jail for months.

City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy told state legislators at an Annapolis hearing yesterday that since her office began reviewing a sample of police arrests in mid-March, about one in six arrests was deemed not worth taking to court. More than 200 cases were killed by prosecutors within days of the suspects' arrests, saving state taxpayers $55 a day per inmate to house the suspects in the crowded jail.

Buoyed by the results, Jessamy said three prosecutors -- each on a 12-hour shift -- will work around the clock starting July 1 to review all arrests made by police in four of the city's nine police districts. The districts encompass downtown Baltimore and the city's east side. Only prosecutors will formally charge the suspects.

Reform has long been seen as vital in unclogging the city's crowded court system. Baltimore's courts came under attack last winter after serious criminal cases -- including a murder case against four defendants -- were dismissed because prosecutors and judges could not bring the suspects to trial on time.

Court officials enacted a series of reforms, including a crackdown on trial postponements, bringing in retired judges to hear cases and creating two new arraignment courts to encourage early plea agreements.

Since then, the city jail population has dropped because of the reforms and a decrease in arrests, said LaMont Flanagan, commissioner of Pre-Trial Services and Detention, which oversees the jail. Last month, 677 inmates were in the city's central booking facility -- a 37 percent decrease from the same month last year.

Flanagan told the legislators fewer people charged with so-called nuisance crimes -- loitering and disorderly conduct -- are being taken to the jail because officers know prosecutors will drop the cases almost immediately. "There's been a culture created now among law enforcement," Flanagan said.

A 1998 Department of Public Safety study showed that about 7 percent of arrests in the city were for loitering -- a charge almost never prosecuted.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier acknowledged that some officers are refraining from making certain arrests because they don't think prosecutors will approve them. "I think as officers become aware of the state's attorney's office review, they are more circumspect," he said.

Police supervisors also are scrutinizing cases before arrests are made, Frazier told the legislators. "It probably is a little bit better law enforcement."

A separate, federally funded report on the court system released last fall said city police, often acting with little supervision, were charging suspects in weak cases that often languished for at least 30 days before they were reviewed by a prosecutor.

While the reform seems to be working, it is unclear whether it will be expanded. Jessamy said yesterday she needs an extra $1 million to pay for a full-time effort to review charges across the city. Jessamy's office if funded by the city.

State legislators, who provide money for the jail, judges and public defenders, applauded the news of the reforms yesterday.

State Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations public safety subcommittee, said lawmakers are eager to see more reforms of the criminal justice system.

"On this issue, we urge you to act boldly," Franchot told the panel of criminal justice officials from Baltimore. "Our only recommendation is: Don't take half-steps. Take full steps."

In recent months, legislators have threatened to withhold millions of dollars from city criminal justice agencies unless critical changes are made.

Also at yesterday's hearing, John Henry Lewin Jr., the coordinator of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council made up of city and state criminal justice officials, said other reforms under consideration include creating a court solely to hear probation violation cases. The public safety study found that defendants charged with violating the terms of their probation take up more than 40 percent of the city's jail beds.

Lewin also said he wants to improve technology so that agencies can communicate faster and more efficiently and manage criminal cases better. He said no fail-safe way exists of determining how long suspects have been waiting for trials, and how many times cases have been postponed.

Prosecutors have the equipment, Lewin said, but the information needs to be put into the system.

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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