Faster handling of minor cases in city hits funding roadblock

April 13, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The road toward speedy justice in many minor cases in Baltimore's justice system has hit stumbling blocks, judges and other court officials said yesterday.

At a meeting of an oversight committee steering reform of the system, officials painted a gloomy picture of the plan to dispose of as many as half of minor cases within 24 hours after arrest. Officials said legislators did not grant enough money to make the plan work. "It's going to have to be greatly scaled down," said Judge Keith E. Mathews, administrative judge of city district courts. "We're going to work more in phases now."

In March, the oversight committee, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, created a plan for speedier justice in minor cases after Mayor Martin O'Malley called for a revamping of the system. The price tag was about $10 million, to come mostly from the state. Justice agencies received about half of that amount.

Peter Saar, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, said O'Malley learned recently of the problems in the plan that he had hoped would turn around the justice system.

"These problems are just this week delivered to the lap of the mayor," Saar said.

The two-pronged plan called for jailed defendants to have their cases heard within 24 hours at a courtroom in the city jail and for those released on bail to be ordered to appear in the North Avenue courthouse the next day.

Mathews said the courts did not receive about $300,000 requested to turn a room in the North Avenue courthouse into an operational court. That means the second half of the plan -- which would handle most of the cases -- could be essentially defunct.

Without the courtroom, officials expect to be able to handle only those defendants jailed -- about 50 cases a day -- in the jail courtroom. That means about a quarter of the daily arrests could end in swift adjudication, instead of the 50 percent hoped for.

Concerns also were raised about the ability of the community services program to handle more cases. Defendants who agreed to plead guilty under the swift disposition plan were expected to be sentenced to community service or drug treatment.

Anne Elliott, program director, said her seven-member staff can handle about 2,000 referrals a year. Prosecutors said they expect to make up to 2,000 a month.

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