Jail officials back mayor's court plan

Overhaul of system could cost state millions, they say

`Funds commitment exist'

Speedy handling of lesser offenses sought by O'Malley

March 02, 2000|By Caitlin Francke and Thomas W. Waldron | Caitlin Francke and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Public safety officials told legislators in Annapolis yesterday that they support Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan to reform the Baltimore court system but said it could cost the state millions of dollars.

The officials, who run the Baltimore jail, said they would need at least $1.3 million annually to pay for 34 new employees and additional money to remodel the courtroom area to comply with the mayor's request.

The mayor has called for an overhaul of the court system so that half of criminal cases can be disposed of within 24 hours of arrest, which would require a judge in the jail to handle about 250 defendants each day.

"There are serious issues that must be confronted and resolved," said LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of pretrial services and detention. "If we were to process over 200 cases a day at 10 minutes apiece, that's 42.5 hours" a day.

"You would virtually need two courtrooms," he said.

Despite such concerns, O'Malley said yesterday that he will push to have the courtroom at the city jail turned into a clearinghouse for minor cases by April 10.

"The funds and commitment exist on both a state and local level," O'Malley said in a statement released last night.

O'Malley's promise of swift action came as legislative leaders released $9 million that had been withheld from criminal justice agencies to force reform of the city's court system.

The mayor urged lawmakers last month to hold on to the funds until all of the agencies involved had agreed on a reform plan.

The heads of the General Assembly's two budget committees said they had seen enough progress to release the money.

"Given these facts and the integrity of all the people working to solve this problem, it serves no useful purpose to continue to withhold the remaining $8.9 million," said a letter signed by Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings and sent to Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

Their decision was a clear sign that legislators had tired of the mayor's sharp exchanges with state judges over court reform.

"We're trying to move this process forward and get it off the track where it's leading now," Rawlings said.

Hoffman and Rawlings said all parties, including Martha F. Rasin, chief judge of the District Court, had agreed "conceptually" to place a judge in the city jail courtroom five days a week. A judge now sits there parts of four days, mostly for bail reviews.

The cost projections by public safety officials were based on the mayor's initial call for a seven-day-a-week court.

The legislators acknowledged that key operational details of O'Malley's reform plan had not been resolved.

"We are confident that the judiciary, the mayor and the other stakeholders can reach agreement on the details soon," wrote Hoffman and Rawlings, both Baltimore Democrats.

O'Malley sounded more conciliatory yesterday than he had in recent weeks.

"What we have to do now is shut our mouths and roll up our sleeves" to reform the criminal justice system, the mayor said.

Rasin, the target of many of O'Malley's criticisms, declined to discuss the reported conceptual agreement.

After weeks of wrangling with O'Malley and legislative leaders, Bell said he was happy about the release of the money and declined to comment further.

O'Malley wants to rid the system of minor cases before they clog court dockets so that prosecutors can focus on the most serious violent criminals.

The cases of about 60 percent of those jailed and awaiting trial are dropped or placed in the inactive file by prosecutors. O'Malley has said that should happen early in the process.

The main concern is that the jail's courtroom was not built to handle a large number of cases. The courtroom is in a nonsecure area of the building.

That means that dozens of people would have to be added to the security staff to escort inmates between the jail and the courtroom. In addition, Flanagan said he would have to build a holding cell outside the courtroom for offenders waiting to see a judge.

Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights:

Senate meets 10 a.m. Senate chamber.

House of Delegates meets 10 a.m. House chamber.

House Ways and Means Committee hearing on governor's proposal for state-supported teacher pay raises, 2 p.m. House office building, Room 110.

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