Too early to celebrate the end of court crisis

Reality: Serious problems dog criminal justice system even though Circuit Court has made progress

Getting away with MURDER

October 22, 1999

It is far too early to celebrate a turnaround in Baltimore City's troubled criminal-justice system.

Substantial progress has been made toward eliminating the most pressing emergencies. But while the Circuit Court and the Central Booking and Intake Center are no longer in crisis, the system as a whole still does not function smoothly or effectively. Far too often, a sense of urgency and shared mission are lacking.

Stephen E. Harris, who heads the state public defender's office, underscored this reality in a recent complaint to Keith E. Mathews, administrative judge of the city District Court. Despite a $551,097 allocation from the General Assembly, bureaucratic foot-dragging prevents the Public Defender's Office from representing defendants at bail hearings and other court proceedings, Mr. Harris wrote.

During the first two weeks of October, he said, case files for 40 percent of the defendants failed to arrive from Central Booking in time view process, denying many defendants the possibility of bail and leading to costly pretrial incarceration at taxpayers' expense. Had they been represented by a lawyer with access to records, many defendants might have been released to await trial.

Since February, The Sun has detailed the breakdown of the criminal justice system, prompting action and improvements.

The General Assembly's decision in the spring to withhold $18 million from the criminal justice system accelerated reforms by individual agencies and the newly created Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has submitted a 39-page report on further measures. But the document fails to spell out timetables or establish benchmarks for success, even though the legislature asked for such specifics.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was right to wonder whether the plan's reform commitment is strong enough to justify releasing the funds.

The system is so prone to inertia, it seems incapable of responding meaningfully without external pressure.

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