Real breakthrough or just false hopes?

Central Booking: Tentative agreement on full-time court at lockup comes none too soon.

Getting away with MURDER

March 02, 2000

LET'S HOPE that yesterday's deal for a full-time court at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center is a real reform and not just a negotiating ploy. Too much time has already been wasted on bureaucratic wrangling in this city where slayings are rampant and the criminal-justice system allows many murderers to go unpunished.

"We are finally moving forward," Mayor Martin O'Malley said of Chief District Judge Martha F. Rasin's "conceptual" willingness to place a judge at the intake center five days a week. In return, the General Assembly agreed to free embargoed court funding.

Reaching this point took several years. This progress comes none too soon. Just one year after Baltimore's malfunctioning courts and lethal violence persuaded criminal-justice agencies to seek joint solutions, their cooperation recently began to unravel.

The State's Attorney's Office stopped participating in bail reviews and the public defender scaled back its representation of defendants. Worsening the situation was the end this week of a private pilot program that saved taxpayers millions of dollars by helping arrestees avoid unnecessary pretrial incarceration.

These truly alarming developments seemed to have their inspiration in Judge Rasin's fight with Mayor O'Malley over the Central Booking court. The judiciary's obstructionism emboldened other agencies to start backpedaling in hopes of winning higher budget and staff allocations.

This dangerous dissension now can be halted -- if the Central Booking deal sticks.

The devil is in the details. And the important thing is not whether the court operates five or seven days. The main issue is what the Central Booking judge should do.

Mr. O'Malley wants 50 percent of minor offenses disposed within the first 24 hours of arrest -- before these unimportant cases clog the pretrial cells and the court system. This goal can be achieved only if the Central Booking judge hears a full docket.

When Judge Rasin initially expressed her willingness to post a judge five days a week, she seemed to want the judge to hear only bail reviews and certain pleas. Such a narrow scope clearly would not produce the kinds of radical results the mayor wants.

Judge Rasin has taken some heavy hits in recent weeks for her obstructionism. Her credibility with the public and the General Assembly depends on the speed and clarity of the final accommodation she negotiates.

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