City justice reforms at a deeper level

Challenge: Coordinating council must now deal with entrenched court practices that make no sense.

Getting Away With Murder

June 17, 1999

ALTHOUGH criminal-justice leaders have implemented only the first steps in a needed series of reforms, the improvement has been striking. After years of dangerous overcrowding, occupancy at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center is below capacity. As judges are hearing more cases, court backlogs and frivolous postponements have been reduced. Prosecutors have started weeding out cases too weak to try in court.

The system's efficiency is likely to improve further after July 1, when the State's Attorney's Office will begin a round-the-clock review of arrests made by police. The program will initially operate five days a week in four of the nine districts.

These are the highlights of the initial progress report of the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which was convened four months ago. At the time, the courts were in crisis: Murder suspects had been let go because their cases had been postponed too long; bureaucratic infighting and inertia had stalled the machinery of the judiciary, subjecting witnesses to endless runarounds that prompted many simply to give up. Worst of all, unchecked gun violence had made Baltimore one of America's most murderous cities.

Calls for action by The Sun triggered coordinated efforts to rectify the situation. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend got involved, as did the General Assembly. The various elements of the criminal justice system were forced to make changes they had long resisted. The posting of a judge at the Central Booking and Intake Center a few days a week, for example, helped reduce crowding.

"We are moving in the right direction," Del. Peter Franchot observed Tuesday, when the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council reported on its work to the legislature's public safety subcommittee.

It is particularly reassuring that the voluntary council has moved beyond the obvious problems and is tackling the more entrenched practices that contribute to inefficiency.

Among them is central booking's video bail review setup, which was installed when the District Court refused to allow its judges to hear cases inside the jail. That remote system, with its fuzzy pictures and unreliable sound, is "unacceptable," two members of the coordinating council testified. Their solution? Judges should start conducting bail hearings in person.

Equally important is the council's determination to change how probation violations are handled. Currently, parolees must appear before the judge who freed them, even though that judge may not be available for weeks or no longer handles criminal cases -- a practice that can cause gridlock. One third of people arrested in the city are on parole or probation; on any given day, while they await a violation hearing, they occupy nearly half of the space at the central booking facility.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is likely to encounter resistance in attacking such thorny issues. Yet unless fundamental problems causing inefficiency are resolved, the city's criminal-justice crisis is likely to recur. The time to overhaul the system is now.

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