July eyed for court reforms

Panel unveils plan to turn city jail into clearinghouse

`Making great progress'

Group to seek state funds for implementation

March 09, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A speedier criminal justice system could be in effect in Baltimore by July 1 under a plan announced yesterday that ends -- at least for now -- a vitriolic debate between the mayor and state judiciary.

But more hurdles remain before the courtroom at the city jail is turned into a clearinghouse for minor cases, as the mayor wishes. The estimated cost of putting the plan in place is about $10 million, much of which will likely have to come from state coffers. Officials aim for the courtroom to be operational by July 1.

"Now we'll have to get it funded," said John H. Lewin Jr., chairman of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a group composed of all criminal justice agencies, from judges to jail officials. "I'm hoping that the governor will press for full payment of that budget and the legislature will comply."

Council members had been working for the past year on a plan to better use the jail courtroom. Mayor Martin O'Malley's demands for fast action accelerated the council's work.

Lewin publicly outlined the plan yesterday at the council meeting attended by about 20 representatives of criminal justice agencies as well as O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Stuart O. Simms, the top judges of the city's circuit and district courts and State Public Defender Stephen E. Harris.

Lewin said he plans to present the plan to legislators this week. But, he said, the public defender's office, the jail, the judiciary and other agencies affected will have to push to get the money they need in their budgets. "It'll be up to them to convince the state legislature that they are entitled to every dollar," he said.

The plan represents a breakthrough in the fiery battle over the future of the city courts. O'Malley and Chief District Judge Martha F. Rasin both appeared to approve the plan after weeks of fighting.

"I think we are making great progress," O'Malley said at the coordinating council's meeting in Courthouse East on Calvert Street, where the plan was unveiled. "Thanks for all your good work."

Rasin sounded a similar note of cooperation.

"I am satisfied that citizens' rights will not be jeopardized and that the plan is realistic," Rasin wrote in a prepared statement.

Substantial differences

The plan, while meeting O'Malley's goal of eliminating minor cases swiftly, differs substantially from his original proposal.

O'Malley's proposal called for 50 percent of the 250 daily arrests to be adjudicated within 24 hours of arrest. It is not clear under this plan how many cases will be handled.

To start, prosecutors are expected to bring about 50 or 75 cases to the courtroom every day. A judge will preside over cases five days a week, eight hours a day. The courtroom is now used part time.

If the program, which Rasin is calling a "pilot," is successful, Lewin and others said it could be expanded.

The process

Here's how it will work: Prosecutors will review all arrests made between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m., the peak hours, to determine which cases can be expedited. Those will include drug possession, prostitution, shoplifting and disorderly conduct.

The defendants held in jail on such cases will be offered a plea bargain in the morning. If they accept it, they can be sentenced or released that day. If not, they will await a trial.

The defendants who are released on bail will be scheduled for a hearing the next afternoon in Eastside District Court on North Avenue. They, too, will be offered a plea bargain, which they can accept or reject.

Adding staff

To put the plan in place, the jail will need $2.2 million to hire additional security staff to transport the inmates to and from the 20-by-40-foot courtroom because it is in an unsecure part of the building.

It will also need to revamp the courtroom area to build a holding cell and create room for prosecutors and public defenders to meet with inmates.

The public defender's office estimates that it will need $3.3 million for more staff because they will be working around the clock.

The judiciary will need about $1 million to hire more court commissioners, who set bail for defendants and will prepare the case files.

Prosecutors have received $1.3 million from O'Malley to staff the courtroom and take over the charging function from police.

Yesterday, Lewin said the Police Department will have to hire five more chemists to analyze suspected drugs.

O'Malley said he will "explore" the idea of hiring additional chemists.

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