Case backlog is dropping, report says

Decrease in number of defendants who are awaiting trial

A `remarkable effort'

Increased funding, expedited trial list helped speed process

August 10, 1999|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore court officials say they have reversed the trend that crippled the city's justice system: the ever-escalating backlog of criminal cases.

Statistics released yesterday show that the number of defendants awaiting trial was slashed by 17 percent -- to 4,527 -- through the first six months of this year. In the same time period last year, that backlog had increased about 14 percent.

"An incredible number of people demonstrated that individually they would do whatever was necessary to attack the backlog of cases," Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, chief of the city's criminal docket, said in a written statement. "The progress we report today is a tribute to this remarkable public and private effort."

The report comes as Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, Mitchell and others involved in the city's justice system are scheduled to appear in Annapolis today at a hearing about evidence problems in the courthouse.

The eight-page report details changes made to reform the courts since early this year, when The Sun brought to light many issues affecting the system.

Key changes include a crackdown on delays, an expedited trial list and increased funding for public defenders, prosecutors, clerks and the courts. In addition, officials have reinstituted centralized arraignment -- in which two judges handle arraignments full time -- which added 12 more trial days a week for the criminal judges.

Defense attorney Jack B. Rubin said Mitchell's leadership has meant that criminal cases are handled more prudently and efficiently. "Judge Mitchell is running that ship in a much more disciplined manner than in the past," Rubin said. "What ultimately happens is it forces the state to take a good look at their case and forces the defense to take a good look at its case."

He added, "That's happening because [Mitchell] holds your feet to the fire."

The report also highlights the creation of several committees to direct reform of the state's busiest -- and most troubled -- courthouse. Mitchell reinstituted two key criminal justice groups, one of which had not met since 1994.

The report points to the reduction of trial delays as another sign of success. In the first six months of this year, the number of defendants whose cases were postponed each month dropped by 30 percent to 636, compared with the same period last year.

The crackdown on postponements and use of the fast-track "move list" meant prosecutors and defense attorneys found themselves trying cases at break-neck speed. Retired judges have been brought in to hear backlogged cases.

"You can't just sit back on your laurels. You have to be ready for trial so [the backlog] does not happen again," said Francine E. Stokes, spokeswoman for the State's Attorney's Office.

The city's criminal justice system has been under intense scrutiny since last winter, when murder cases against four defendants were thrown out because they had been postponed more than a dozen times over three years.

The Sun then discovered other cases -- including an armed robbery -- that had been dismissed or that had netted little jail time because prosecutors and judges could not bring the defendants to trial promptly. State law requires that defendants be tried within 180 days of their arraignment.

The court report states that city prosecutors and public defenders had been chronically under-funded for a decade while police continued to arrest more and more people.

"These agencies were ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of arrests instituted by police," the report says.

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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