Bottlenecks remain in court streamlining

Criminal reform: Hopes and skepticism surround efforts to change stodgy system Aug. 1.

July 14, 2000

AFTER MORE THAN a year of controversy and bureaucratic haggling, Baltimore will streamline its ponderous criminal justice system next month. No one knows for sure what will happen. Or as John Henry Lewin, the effort's coordinator, puts it, "We are excited about getting this going. But we are apprehensive about whether it's going to work."

This ambivalence is understandable. The city's creaky criminal justice system is grappling with monumental problems.

After a much-publicized crisis a year and a half ago, the Circuit Court has reduced -- but not eliminated -- case backlogs so serious that murderers went free because their trials were delayed too long. Chronic crowding at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center also has been alleviated.

Nevertheless, the District Court system, which is the starting point for all criminal cases, has been unable or unwilling to attack too frequent and too lengthy pretrial incarceration.

Warehousing suspects awaiting a hearing is costly to taxpayers. It is unfair to indigent defendants, who tend to end up serving time even when charges against them are eventually dropped.

In a sample of 1,072 arrests studied by the University of Maryland Law School recently, 49 percent of suspects were denied bail. Those defendants spent an average of 68 days in pretrial incarceration, despite the constitutional presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Eventually, only 39 percent were sentenced to prison or given probation.

Judges say that small percentage is misleading because witnesses disappear or change their original testimony. Nevertheless, it is alarming that the criminal justice system habitually detains indigent suspects, mostly on drug and assault charges, when cases against them evaporate.

Better cooperation was supposed to have remedied this situation. It has not.

In fact, the District Court last month discontinued reviews of previously set bails at its Central Booking courtroom. Deprived of such an appeal, more indigent defendants are likely to be held indefinitely in pretrial incarceration.

The court's decision could not have come at a worse time. Already, the Public Defender's Office, citing budget and personnel shortages, has limited its representation of indigent defendants to only two of the three District Court complexes.

Unless they qualify for bail, defendants can spend 30 days or longer behind bars for lack of available counsel.

This is grossly unfair.

Weak cases should be disposed of within 24 hours; they are in many other cities. Yet even after Aug. 1, only one of the three District Court branches will experiment with ways to adjudicate minor cases that quickly.

The pilot program is likely to test some concepts that are novel in Baltimore. Although no final decision has been made, the State's Attorney's Office is looking into the possibility of directing some minor offenders to community service -- such as cleaning streets and public places -- without that sentence becoming part of a criminal record.

"The object is to move those cases quickly," Judge David B. Mitchell explained.

His comments triggered a rejoinder from Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway, who thought the experiment was too lenient. "Quick justice sometimes may mean injustice," he contended.

Much of the streamlining effort rests on hopes that the criminal justice system's antiquated computers will help things move faster after they are modernized.

At present, few of the criminal justice players are interconnected.

By Oct. 1, that will change with the installation of a computer system that will allow the various agencies to exchange e-mail messages, tap the Internet and access the judicial information system.

The Circuit Court, which has been using more advanced technology than other agencies, will issue laptop computers to judges so they can scan conviction and sentencing documents not only from their chambers but from courtrooms.

Much remains to be done. While the police department is starting to scan some data, offense reports are not yet online. As long as they are not readily available, it will remain difficult for prosecutors to review charges recommended by police.

That review is among the key changes of the streamlining effort. Currently, the police charge suspects, without input from the state's attorney's office. As a result, many suspects are charged either inappropriately or unnecessarily. This explains, in part, why so many prosecutions are dropped later in the process.

Such bottlenecks must be eliminated. Even when charges are pressed, the accused must have an opportunity for speedy resolution of his or her case. Lengthy pretrial incarceration is an affront to the justice system.

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