Court reform requires deadlines, clear goals

Combating inertia: Baltimore's criminal justice crisis can be cured only through more detailed plan.

October 07, 1999

IN RESPONSE to a mandate by the Maryland General Assembly, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has submitted a 39-page report on revamping Baltimore's malfunctioning criminal-justice system.

It describes problems succinctly. But it fails to spell out timetables for reform or who is responsible for implementing them.

"It's not a bad discussion piece," says Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot, who has scheduled a public safety subcommittee hearing Oct. 19 to discuss the report. "But it needs goals, time lines, actions to be taken so that we on the outside can hold the system accountable."

Mr. Franchot is right. The legislature's charge was for Mr. Bell to produce a comprehensive plan for action. Instead, the report tends to justify inertia by excusing bureaucrats who resist working together.

Nevertheless, the report constitutes the first implicit acknowledgment from the chief judge of the crisis in Baltimore courts. Up to now, he has insisted that the Maryland judiciary "is in excellent functional condition," even though The Sun has chronicled judicial paralysis in Baltimore.

The legislature should focus on two priorities:

Improving computer links among the various criminal-justice agencies. Currently, their computer networks cannot communicate. That has made swift exchange of routine information impossible, leading to costly inefficiencies.

Making sure that the state's attorney's office in Baltimore is adequately funded to handle its heavy caseload.

The backwardness in computerization is inexcusable because relatively little money is required for upgrading. Nothing will change, though, unless a timetable is specified and someone is put in charge of creating the necessary interconnections.

The price tag for bolstering the city prosecutor's office will be far steeper because of years of underfunding by several mayors. Yet it is essential that the state's attorney's office get more personnel and resources. This is a budget burden the city alone cannot bear.

With a new mayor coming in soon, this is the time to press for an overhaul of the city criminal-justice system. So much depends on the state, however, that if things are to change, the legislature must show the way.

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