Money key to court reform

Prosecutor's office in Baltimore needs $6 million, study says

Report to Md. lawmakers

But delegate deplores what he perceives as lack of specifics

October 02, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

If the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office is not given millions of extra dollars, the city's crippled justice system will be virtually impossible to fix, a report to state legislators concluded yesterday.

The report, ordered by state lawmakers in April after revelations that several criminal suspects had been set free because of chronic trial delays, says the long under-funded city prosecutor's office needs nearly $6 million more from city coffers.

"Without an increase in staffing, the State's Attorney's Office will continue to be handicapped," the 39-page report says.

If prosecutors are "not able to perform adequately ... all members of Baltimore City's criminal justice system will be adversely impacted in their on-going efforts to reduce delay."

The report outlines reforms to improve the quality of justice in Baltimore, where cases have been delayed for as long as four years and admitted armed robbers have been set free.

Legislators had ordered court officials to prepare the plan or risk losing $17.8 million in funding for various agencies.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the budget subcommittee that ordered the plan, said yesterday that he was "disappointed" because it lacks hard deadlines for change.

"We would like to know what your plan of action is, not what are some good ideas," Franchot said. "We expected an action plan, but instead we got a passive information report."

A hearing before the House Appropriations Committee will be scheduled in mid-October, he said.

Problems began in the courthouse about four years ago when the number of felony criminal cases rose sharply.

While police received additional funds for the nationwide crackdown on crime, prosecutors did not see similar increases to their $18 million budget to handle the new cases, the plan says. Court officials were lax in monitoring the cases and granted trial postponements without question.

The result: a court system ripe for disaster.

Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who is in charge of the criminal docket, said the plan provides a road map to overcome the crisis.

"What we have here is a blueprint for the progress we are going to make," Mitchell said. "It documents the causes of our previous conditions, it shows that we have arrested that problem, and we are working very effectively to implement procedures that will hopefully prevent it from occurring in the future."

Findings and recommendations include:

Hiring a coordinator to oversee the criminal docket and regularly analyze the flow of cases to stay on top of the backlog.

Allocating money for improved technology so every judge, prosecutor, public defender and justice employee has a computer that can communicate with other agencies. Each computer would cost about $20,000.

Making the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, comprising leaders of city and state justice agencies, a permanent group to continue reforms of the system.

Appointing a liaison for the Circuit Court to ensure that police officers appear when called to testify for trials.

Creating a court dedicated solely to hearing violation-of-probation cases. Many suspected offenders wait months in jail for a hearing, but opening such a court might require a change in the law.

John H. Lewin Jr., executive director of the council, said many reforms have been put in place since the court crisis came to light early this year.

Those reforms have changed the "culture of postponement" that led to enormous trial delays, he said, and reduced the backlog by 25 percent.

He said a judge will be appointed this month to oversee disputes concerning the exchange of evidence, a process known as discovery, and a new case-management system will be used.

Other areas the council will examine include: studying the city's drug treatment capacity and how best to dispose of weak cases early, before they clog the system.

The report highlights the need for increased funding for prosecutors, Lewin said, because that office is where criminal cases begin.

"There are many who think that the present mayor deliberately strangled the funding to this office in order to convince the General Assembly to take over state funding of the State's Attorney's Office," Lewin said.

"The success of any city depends upon the ability of its criminal justice system to deal effectively and fairly with crime."

The plan says $1 million is needed so prosecutors, instead of police, can charge suspected offenders.

Since July, prosecutors have been conducting a pilot project, reviewing charges 24 hours a day, five days a week, in four of the nine city police districts.

The results show that many police arrests are weak: Ten percent were dropped by prosecutors, and an additional 17 percent of charges made by police had to be amended by prosecutors so the cases could stand up in court.

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