Panel discusses plan for disposal of cases

Mayor proposes settling many criminal incidents within day after arrest

February 11, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Criminal justice officials have begun to tackle Mayor Martin O'Malley's proposal that half of all criminal cases be disposed of within 24 hours after arrest -- a move that would require restructuring the justice system.

Ideas range from having jury trials in District Court to equipping police officers with field equipment that would allow them to test a suspect for drugs on the spot, rather than waiting for a chemist's report. Jury trials are now held only in Circuit Court.

During a meeting Wednesday of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, O'Malley reiterated his position that disposing of minor cases quickly would allow prosecutors and judges more time to focus on serious, violent crimes.

He is proposing that prosecutors and judges set up a policy to encourage defendants to plead guilty by offering them the best "deal" the first time they appear in court. After that, he said, plea offers should be stiffer.

Defendants in Baltimore know, he said, that the longer they delay a case, the more likely that witnesses will disappear and the case will be dropped. "Right now, it's backwards," O'Malley said. "The more often you come back, the better the deal gets, because the case gets old."

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said she would agree to such a policy if the judges did, so prosecutors wouldn't be "undercut" by judges in court.

O'Malley's position is buttressed by a report from the University of Maryland that shows 22 percent of defendants are jailed awaiting trial and the majority see their cases dropped. The study estimates that 120,465 jail-bed days are wasted on these defendants.

Moving cases through the justice system as rapidly as O'Malley wants would mean that, every day, about 125 arrests would have to be dropped, placed on the inactive docket or end in guilty pleas within 24 hours, said John H. Lewin, head of the council.

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