Courts plan may get OK this week

City justice panel to vote on reforms at meeting Wednesday

Major differences remain

Judges concerned about suggestion for 2-minute adjudication

March 05, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

After weeks of wrangling between the mayor and the judiciary over reform of Baltimore's courts, a plan to revamp the justice system may emerge this week.

A group studying the issue hopes to meet Mayor Martin O'Malley's goal of handling many minor cases within 24 hours of arrest. If the plan being developed by the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council gains the consensus of involved parties, from judges to jail officers, at a meeting Wednesday, it would be a major breakthrough in a turbulent battle over the future of the city courts.

At the end of last week, however, major differences remained about how the justice system could be improved, despite the mayor's assertion that it was stick-figure simple.

While O'Malley believes that speedier justice for minor cases will allow more time to prosecute violent criminals, judges remain concerned about a proposal that could leave them less than two minutes on average to adjudicate each case in a courtroom at the jail.

Also, the debate involves more parties than O'Malley and the judges.

"I just want to move beyond any simplistic notion that this is not a complicated problem. The impression that this is something that one person can achieve and one person is obstructing is not the case," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and O'Malley supporter who heads a powerful budget committee. "This doesn't succeed by one person's energy. This succeeds by all of the stakeholders agreeing to move this project forward."

O'Malley and state judges, principally Chief Judge of the District Court Martha F. Rasin, have been locked in a vitriolic debate for weeks -- he called her an "obstructionist," she said he threw "a tantrum" -- about O'Malley's desire to turn the courtroom at the Central Booking and Intake Center into a clearinghouse for minor cases.

The debate has consumed the General Assembly, City Hall and the court system. Legislators, tired of the bickering and eager for a resolution, last week directed the matter to the coordinating council, the oversight committee steering reform of the city's courts.

Council's origins

Judges and other officials formed the council last year after murder and armed robbery suspects were set free because their trials didn't occur within 180 days, as the law requires. The council consists of members of all city justice agencies, from prosecutors to probation agents. It will meet Wednesday in Courthouse East on Calvert Street.

"We would expect, following that meeting, having a clear vision of what the ultimate plan is going to be and what the costs are going to be," Rawlings said.

John H. Lewin Jr., chairman of the council, said the group has been working for a year on how to better use the courtroom in the jail, currently used part-time. Lewin said the council plan will aim to meet O'Malley's goal of ridding the system of many cases within 24 hours of arrest. Exactly how many remains unclear, he said.

Campaign cornerstone

O'Malley, who made justice issues the cornerstone of his mayoral campaign last year, wants half of the approximately 250 daily arrests in the city to be adjudicated within 24 hours. The former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney says minor cases clog the justice system, depriving the courts and prosecutors of vital time to handle violent offenders.

His theory is based on the fact that the majority of minor cases are eventually dropped but consume man-hours and court time in the process.

If cases were handled more rapidly, the mayor says, the city would save millions of dollars in overtime paid to police who go to court repeatedly to testify, only to see many of the cases dropped.

"If [case dispositions] happened up front, it would create a lot more room in our courtrooms for prosecutors to seek minimum mandatory sentences on gun cases," O'Malley said. "And it will get us much further down the road to those 900 serious prosecutions of violent gun offenders that are going make this city a safer place and save a heck of a lot of lives."

Under his plan, all people arrested would first go to the courtroom, where many would be offered a plea bargain. If they chose to accept it, they could be sentenced or released that day. If not, they would await trial.

But judges and other members of city justice agencies, principally those who run the city jail, say such an approach poses serious problems.

Moving that many inmates to and from the courtroom would be "a nightmare," one jail official said.

Minimum cost

Public safety officials told state legislators last week that it would cost the state a minimum of $1.3 million a year for 34 extra officers and additional funds to revamp the courtroom area to accommodate the mayor's plan.

The 20-by-40-foot courtroom in the jail can seat about 25 inmates at a time and is located in a nonsecure area -- at the other end of the jail from where the inmates are housed.

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