AFTER much vitriolic wrangling, a blueprint finally emerged last week for opening a full-time court at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center. But nothing will happen unless Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the General Assembly allocate sufficient funds to implement the plan July 1.
Despite the pricetag of $10 million, funding the plan should not be a big problem in these fat and happy times. But it could be when such an expenditure package is proposed just four weeks before the General Assembly adjourns. Will there be enough time for all of the criminal-justice agencies involved to get approvals for the additional money needed to secure their participation in the court's operation? Will the funding request get lost in the shuffle of last-minute requests and lobbying that typically inundate legislators this time of year?
There is a further potential calendar complication: No bill has yet been introduced to formalize the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which negotiated the Central Booking court plan. For more than a year that voluntary consultative group has been doing invaluable work unclogging Baltimore's crime-fighting bureaucracies -- but without legal standing. For the council to reach its full potential in the battle to reduce Baltimore's spiraling crime rate, its authority must be codified.
None of this necessarily presages disaster. But the time pressures makes it incumbent on Governor Glendening and the General Assembly to exercise their leadership. They must make sure that hard-won progress is not lost because of some last-minute funding or procedural snafu.
Having a five-day judge at Central Booking is critical if Baltimore is to move toward Mayor Martin O'Malley's goal of seeing 50 percent of minor offenses disposed of within 24 hours after arrest.
Currently, many non-violent suspects in run-of-the-mill cases are unable to make the bail. They end up languishing in pre-trial incarceration for weeks at taxpayers expense. There's no shortage of stories in Baltimore about the non-violent traffic or other offense that ends with a weekend in jail because there's no one to hear the bail review.
The new plan would end this.
A judge hearing cases at the intake center could keep the system from getting clogged. That would allow prosecutors and others to concentrate on dealing with violent career criminals, who have learned to play the system and now often go unpunished.
For a decade such outlaws have been responsible for more than 300 killings each year, which have made Baltimore one of America's most violent cities.
Governor Glendening and the General Assembly have the power to change this. By funding the Central Booking court, they can set the city's justice priorities straight.