Judges' court deal is test of credibility

Central Booking: Chief judges return to playing games after General Assembly unfreezes funds

Getting away with Murder

March 06, 2000

A STRANGE thing happened in Annapolis last week: Two powerful budget leaders told the General Assembly that embargoed funds should be released because the judiciary had agreed to post a judge five days a week at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center.

The next day, after $8.9 million had been unfrozen, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell corrected Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings. He thanked them for the money but told them there was no deal.

Instead, he said the judiciary had only agreed to take Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan for a full-time court "to the interested parties" for further discussion.

Some angry legislative leaders feel double-crossed. (They should.) Others take a calmer view. But Judge Bell's letter has served as a chilly reminder to legislators that the judiciary's cynical obstructionism plays a large part in Baltimore's inability to stem the homicide rate and overhaul malfunctioning criminal-justice processes.

Another round will be played out Wednesday, when the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council convenes to consider Mayor O'Malley's plan to have 50 percent of minor offenses disposed within the first 24 hours of arrest.

Key to the mayor's plan is placing a full-time judge at Central booking to hear a comprehensive docket of cases.

In contrast, Chief District Judge Martha F. Rasin has expressed her willingness to have a new judge deal only with bail reviews and certain pleas. Such a narrow scope would not produce the radical improvements the mayor wants.

Over the past year, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has done invaluable work to straighten out the bureaucratic mess in the city.

In the end, though, it is a voluntary consultative body that lacks any legal standing. The council can make recommendations, but resolution of the Central Booking court dispute must come from the judiciary.

The bottom line is simple: A full-time courtroom can be made operational at Central Booking on a few days' notice, if Judges Rasin and Bell so order. But if they are allowed to continue dragging their feet, this protracted dispute will go on and on, while Baltimore bleeds.

Their willful intransigence must end.

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