Court reform divides officials

O'Malley exchanges heated words with Chief Judge Rasin

February 24, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Maryland's top District Court judge and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley exchanged harsh words yesterday, with the judge firing off an angry letter to him and the mayor calling her "obstructionist" on court reform.

The comments deepened the divide between O'Malley and Chief Judge Martha F. Rasin over how to fix the city's beleaguered justice system.

Rasin sent the letter to O'Malley after his remarks Feb. 11 before state legislators when he implored them to withhold $9 million from the state judiciary until they cooperate more on reform efforts.

He called the court system "dysfunctional" and, after hearing judges tell legislators the justice system in Baltimore is improving, he said, "I'd like to throw up."

Rasin wrote that the mayor has never discussed with her his idea for fixing the courts by disposing of 50 percent of criminal cases within 24 hours of arrest. She is willing to examine solutions to the court crisis, she wrote, and has asked to meet with him.

"What I have received instead is the kind of criticism I hope you never have to hear," Rasin wrote. "You have told anyone who would listen that I am stubborn and uncooperative. But you have never accepted my invitation to meet and you have never given me your plan."

"I will ask again. Would you like to discuss your ideas with me?" she wrote.

O'Malley responded yesterday that he would be glad to meet with Rasin. But, he said, the judge should already know exactly what his plan for court reform is. The former city councilman said he has been discussing his ideas for years and she has not been receptive.

"If she were more cooperative and not as obstructionist as she has been over the past three years, she might have figured it out," O'Malley retorted. "I guess she is trying to say because I have not communicated with her enough, she doesn't have enough understanding. Give me a break."

Rasin has an important ally in this fight, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a powerful Baltimore Democrat who chairs a key budget committee and supports the judge's position that O'Malley has not articulated a clear plan.

At issue is the use of the courtroom at the city jail, which has long been a lightning rod for argument. O'Malley wants a District Court judge to sit in the courtroom five days a week so that minor cases can be disposed of swiftly. A District Court judge presides in that court two days a week, conducting mostly bail-review hearings.

O'Malley said it is vital to dump the minor cases that clog the docket so prosecutors and judges can focus on violent offenders. A recent review of nearly 3,000 records by The Sun showed that few violent criminals receive stiff prison sentences -- if any sentence at all.

Rasin, who in an interview called the mayor's testimony a "tantrum," said that she is willing to place a judge there but there have not been enough cases to justify a full-time judge. Part of the problem, she said, is that there have not been enough prosecutors or public defenders working on getting early pleas.

She said she started a pilot project in November with one prosecutor and one public defender attending bail-review hearings to try to generate plea agreements. But that effort has not been very successful because of the limited staff.

Only 20 cases -- or 4 percent of those heard in November and December -- were resolved through this project, according to a state Department of Public Safety report.

"The potential for [getting] pleas out of those cases has never really gone anywhere because there have not been enough attorneys there," said Rasin.

In the letter, she said she had wanted to talk to O'Malley about expanding the program to see if it would help ease the crowded city criminal docket.

"While tearing up the entire process every so often to completely re-arrange the handling of Baltimore's criminal caseload has a certain public appeal, I would have suggested that you avail yourself of the available program, work with everyone who has already invested in it, and test your theory," her letter states.

O'Malley said that he recently gave State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy $600,000 to fund additional prosecutors to staff the courtroom at the jail.

Another $1.2 million will go for more prosecutors so that they, rather than police, can formally charge suspects in an effort to improve the quality of cases.

"Here's the plan: Gimme a judge and gimme a couple of clerks," O'Malley said. "Everyone is on board."

Rasin said yesterday she needs to know more details from O'Malley: Will the judges be expected to accept low sentences? How will inmates meet with their attorneys? What exactly is a "minor" crime?

"These are the kinds of questions one finds the answers to in a plan," Rasin said. "And I don't think it's unfair to ask."

Rawlings agrees. Earlier this week he said that O'Malley has not presented a full plan detailing how his proposal would function. Many factors need to be considered, Rawlings said.

"They need a plan. You can't operate a courtroom and not have a clerk and not have a prosecutor. The problem is there has been no plan for it," he said. "In terms of who is dragging their feet, I am convinced it is not Judge Rasin."

"You just can't rush to judgment about who's at fault," Rawlings said.

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