O'Malley makes plan for court reform simple

Stick figures part of explanation sent to state's top judge

`Looking for clarity'

February 29, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Answering state judges' demands that he present them with his plan for reforming Baltimore's courts, Mayor Martin O'Malley yesterday sketched out his proposal to save the city justice system.

Literally.

His 10-page plan, sent to Maryland's Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Robert M. Bell, comes complete with stick figures used to illustrate the new process O'Malley hopes will turn around the beleaguered court system, which has been under siege for the past year.

The plan was accompanied by a letter listing seven top officials -- including Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- who were said to support it. But a Glendening aide and two others contacted yesterday said they had not seen it before it was sent.

The first four pages are drawings of the steps O'Malley believes criminals should go through when they enter the justice system. He wants half of all cases disposed of within 24 hours of arrest at the city jail so that prosecutors, swamped with minor cases, have more time to focus on violent, repeat offenders.

In an interview, O'Malley said he was not trying to be "cute" by presenting what appeared to be mocking drawings to the state's top jurist.

"I was not looking for humor, I was looking for clarity," O'Malley said yesterday. "The last plan they [the judges] said wasn't clear enough, so we are just trying to be as clear as we possibly can be."

The first picture depicts an arrest. (The policeman is identified by a shield penciled into his otherwise blank triangular torso). Then a prosecutor is shown reviewing the charges lodged by police to see if they will stand up in court. (The criminal figure has prison stripes drawn across his chest).

The last picture is a courtroom scene in the city jail where the suspect either pleads guilty after the case is discussed with the prosecutor and the suspect's lawyer, has a bail set or is sent to jail to await a trial. (One door pictured leads to jail; the other displays an exit sign).

But if the stick figures were meant for clarity, the letter that accompanies them can only be seen as another shot fired in the continuing battle between O'Malley and state judges. O'Malley has labeled the judges, in particular Chief Judge of the District Court Martha F. Rasin, as "obstructionist" and the only real impediment to putting his proposal in place.

The letter suggests that Rasin, who called O'Malley's recent testimony in Annapolis about the court system a "tantrum," contact her top clerk in Baltimore if she has questions. O'Malley provides the phone number.

"If Judge Rasin finds this simple version of a three-year-old proposal lacking in sufficient operational details, I would encourage her to consult with Mr. Lonnie Ferguson, [Administrative] Clerk of the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City," the letter states.

Rasin, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Ferguson, contacted yesterday, said he knew nothing about the letter. Told of its contents, he responded: "Judge Rasin is my boss. I don't think she needs any expertise from me."

O'Malley said Ferguson's boss should consult with him. "He's a smart guy."

O'Malley uses the stick figures as the introduction to his plan, which he says will save millions of dollars and lead to more effective prosecutions.

He said the plan will be disseminated to people who don't understand the ins-and-outs of the justice system and the figures will help them grasp it.

"It needs to be broken down and demystified," O'Malley said.

But the fact that he chose to send such pictures to the top judge shocked government officials yesterday.

"I don't believe this," said Raquel M. Guillory, spokesman for Glendening. "Nothing surprises us anymore from that area. He's just a rebel."

Guillory said Glendening had not seen the letter or the plan.

"We have not had a copy sent over to our office to review it before he put our name on it," Guillory said. "Until the governor is able to see it and see what he is proposing to [Judge] Bell, I can't say that he is in 100 percent agreement."

LaMont Flanagan, the commissioner of pretrial detention and services who oversees the city jail, said he had not seen the plan, which lists him as a supporter, until yesterday.

He said he likes O'Malley's idea of disposing of cases quickly to keep the inmate population down, but he was not sure of the specifics of O'Malley's plan.

"There are many aspects of the plan that are meritorious but require extensive discussion and review for their workability and feasibility," Flanagan said.

The plan states that O'Malley has funded prosecutors to staff the courtroom. It also asks the state to provide money to the public defender's office, which represents the majority of defendants in Baltimore, for 18 more lawyers and 43 more support staff members. In addition, it seeks $650,000 to revamp the courtroom.

And the pictures?

"The illustrations in this show that it is not nearly as complicated as some may believe it is," O'Malley said.

"The important thing is that we move forward."

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