Judges must join city justice reform

Central booking: A district judge should be at Central Booking every day to speed cases.

Getting Away With Murder

February 25, 2000

WITH the approval of 29 new positions for the prosecutor's office, Baltimore City is finally getting serious about attacking its tremendous homicide and violent crime rates.

Prosecutors will now be able to review all charges against criminals in advance, which should eliminate many trivial cases. If those matters no longer needlessly clog dockets, prosecutors have time to pay more attention to cases that involve killers and other dangerous criminals.

One impediment to a rational use of public resources remains, though: The judiciary continues to fight attempts to post a full-time judge at the Central Booking and Intake Center.

A battle royale is shaping up.

Legislators, mayor step in

The General Assembly, concerned about the lack of progress in rectifying Baltimore's criminal-justice crisis, last year froze some of the judiciary's budget allocations. A substantial amount continues to be impounded.

Meanwhile, the city's new mayor, Martin O'Malley, has become the long-needed resolute and impatient champion of quick reform. The knives are out for him: After Mr. O'Malley, a lawyer, declared that "I want to throw up" at the judges' smugness, there was talk about having him disciplined by the bar association.

Perhaps the mayor might have phrased his remarks differently. But his frustration is understandable.

There have been more than 300 murders in the city during every year since 1990. Granted, changes are needed to improve the police department; many, in fact, are under way.

Crime out of control

But police crackdowns on gun-toting criminals are likely to fail as long as the rest of the criminal justice system is a revolving door that allows killers and other chronic violent offenders to return to the streets unpunished and free to commit more mayhem.

Circuit Court judges, who preside over felony cases, bear a heavy responsibility for their leniency in granting probation to repeat lawbreakers who know they can beat the system.

District Court judges share in this grave responsibility. All cases start in their courtrooms. The mere fact that judges too often do not validate a court commissioner's reading of defendants' rights results in endless postponements and criminals getting off free.

After years of hand-wringing and empty talk, there is finally a chance to start overhauling this mess. But nothing will happen unless all stakeholders pull together.

Over the past year, the voluntary Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has made substantial progress in addressing inter-agency rivalry and surmounting abysmal bureaucratic barriers. Until Mr. O'Malley became mayor less than three months ago, however, the reform cause lacked a political champion.

In recent weeks, Mr. O'Malley, a former prosecutor, has won several previously uncooperative agencies' support for dispensing swift justice at the Central Booking courtroom. The state's attorney's office has bought into it. So have the Public Defender's Office and corrections officials.

The lone holdout is Chief District Judge Martha F. Rasin. However much she may deny it, she is fighting Mr. O'Malley's efforts to bring a full-time judge to this entry-point of the criminal justice process.

Following the philosophy of her predecessor, the late Robert F. Sweeney, Ms. Rasin has battled previous streamlining efforts. Last year, after much political pressure, she agreed to assign a judge to Central Booking two days a week. But the judge's scope was strictly limited, enabling Judge Rasin to claim the court doesn't have enough to do.

Obstructionism

By contrast, Mr. O'Malley wants the Central Booking courtroom to operate at least eight hours a day, seven days a week. He wants it to "review all misdemeanor cases formally charged with the intent of resolving as many cases as possible with appropriate pleas or other dispositions at an initial hearing."

If given this broad mandate, the court in Central Booking would have more than enough to do.

Many cities successfully use the common-sense approach of having judges quickly dispose of routine cases before they clog court dockets.

The benefits are obvious: Costly, unnecessary pre-trial incarceration could be avoided, freeing the system to deal with dangerous criminals. Indeed, this was the fast and effective way in which Baltimore, too, adjudicated routine misdemeanors until 1970, when restructuring eliminated daily court sessions in all district police stations.

For more than a year, The Sun has advocated daily use of the Central Booking courtroom. The tired, old excuses for not doing so have less merit than ever now that all the other agencies are working together to expedite justice.

Unfortunately, the disagreement between Ms. Rasin and Mr. O'Malley has now become too strident and personalized. They are exchanging letters but seem to be talking past one another. The situation was not helped by Ms. Rasin's latest missive, which mischaracterized her attempts to use the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council as a referee.

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