Jiffy Justice a legal blur at Central Booking

This Just In ...

March 08, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

INSIDE THE mayor's favorite courtroom, the one inside the Central Booking and Intake Center, it's the mission of Judge Ben C. Clyburn to drive the docket in fifth gear. Before Clyburn are 17 defendants, four of them in yellow CBIC jumpsuits and all of them charged with the kind of minor crimes -- drug possession, shoplifting, prostitution -- that flow into the District Courts of Baltimore week after week, year after year. These defendants were arrested only last month; they've already made deals with the state. Now, the judge needs to sign on. It's about 11:30, and all cases will be resolved in less than an hour.

Things move quickly here. But Clyburn knows a legal blur when he sees one. "Let me slow this down a little bit," the judge says more than once. Clyburn senses when defendants are confused -- it's not that hard, really -- or when the statements of the assistant public defender or assistant state's attorney are not understood. The judge wants the accused to know their rights, even as he moves through the docket like Juan Dixon on a fast break.

The drug defendants should know something -- the illegal narcotics of which they're about to admit possession have not been analyzed in a police laboratory. There's no time for that on this accelerated docket. These defendants might have purchased powdery carpet cleaner from drug dealers, Clyburn says. There's no proof that the vials police found on them contained cocaine or heroin.

"Listen, listen," Clyburn tells a defendant named Walter Darden. "These are expedited cases. There's no chemical analysis. We know there's a lot of burn [fake cocaine or heroin] on the street. ... If you want to have [chemical] analysis and go to trial, you have the right to do that."

Defendant Darden listens, nods and goes along with the deal anyway, accepting a 30-day sentence from Feb. 23, the day of his arrest for cocaine possession.

And so it goes: Five months for heroin possession here, time-served for theft there. This is about as speedy as justice gets in the city of Baltimore.

Officially, this is called the Quality Case Review docket. It's an accelerated docket. It's set up to keep suspects in relatively minor cases from taking up too many beds in too many jail cells over too many days. A lot of these defendants have been sent to jail because they failed to appear for earlier court dates -- not because their crimes were horrific.

The QCR docket has been around for four years, the last couple in CBIC. Those who keep blasting the city's courts as moribund might be surprised to know that an accelerated docket exists.

The QCR docket moves to the tune of 32 defendants (representing about 57 cases) a week, says Page Croyder, chief of the Central Booking Division of the State's Attorney's Office. Thirty-two defendants does not seem like much, but that's because the field of cases eligible for this treatment is narrow. It's complicated. (Sorry, no stick figures.) Follow along at home now.

The QCR docket covers only defendants who are in jail awaiting trial. It does not handle the thousands of defendants who post bail or who, for various reasons, including the minor nature of their crimes, are released on personal recognizance soon after they've been arrested.

The QCR is a District Court process; it does not handle defendants who have committed violent crimes or other felonies. With few exceptions, it does not handle the thousands of cases involving victims. It does not handle violation-of-probation cases, or domestic violence felonies.

The assistant state's attorneys and the assistant public defenders look at the cases of defendants who have been in CBIC for more than three days, determine which are eligible for QCR treatment and try to reach snappy resolutions. Yesterday morning, the "oldest" case on the docket was from Feb. 17.

The QCR is something like what Mayor Martin O'Malley envisions for the CBIC courtroom, except that he wants it happening 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and he wants it to involve all cases that come into the District Court.

It sounds like a wonderful idea, Jiffy Justice: Get a case off the street and in front of a judge within 24 hours, get a plea from a defendant, and we'll dispose of fully half of the minor cases that clog the District Court. Instead of trials in 30 days or 60 days -- or defendants and victims who fail to appear -- we'll have pleas within 24 hours. In this scenario, the city will save big on overtime for police officers. And, it's argued, the Circuit Court, the higher court, will run more efficiently and effectively, and Baltimore's homicide rate will fall.

Just how making changes at the District Court level will result in these improvements is not clear.

We can put a judge in the O'Malley Courtroom 24-7 -- if only to give the new mayor what he wants as he sets out energetically to fight crime. It might be worth a try.

But, as Judge Clyburn says, let me slow this down a little bit.

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