O'Malley accused of reform failure

Critic says mayor has fumbled plan for speedy `plea court'

Key components missing

Administration says state hasn't provided the necessary funds

September 17, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The head of the committee overseeing reform of Baltimore's courts says Mayor Martin O'Malley has failed to follow through on a plan for speedier justice - a plan developed at the mayor's insistence.

John H. Lewin Jr., coordinator of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, said O'Malley has not delivered on two components key to resolving as many as 50 percent of the city's criminal cases within 24 hours of arrest.

Despite promises, Lewin said, O'Malley has not hired more chemists so that suspected drugs can be analyzed within 24 hours. In addition, the mayor has not committed substantial funding for drug treatment slots, an important incentive for defendants to admit guilt quickly in the "plea court," Lewin said.

"It is his idea," Lewin said. "We come up with a plan, and the mayor is not living up" to his part.

"It's inconceivable to me how he drops that ball," he said.

O'Malley, who is in Australia to observe the Olympics for the city's effort to bid for the Summer Games in 2012, was unavailable for comment.

Administration officials defended the mayor's efforts at a coordinating council meeting last week.

More chemists should be hired within six weeks, they said. The state money for drug treatment of defendants has not been released by the General Assembly, they said.

Tony White, the mayor's spokesman, said Friday that O'Malley is committed to seeing this plan work.

"I can assure you that the mayor is doing everything in his power to make sure that the plan that he conceived, and [that Lewin's committee] approved, will work," White said. "If there is any area that they feel that he is not meeting his obligations, he is certainly not doing it on purpose."

The city funded additional prosecutors to expedite cases, and money for equipment for the 24-hour drug-testing program has been approved, he said.

But, White said, the state gave much less money than needed for drug treatment. O'Malley had asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening for an additional $25 million; The governor submitted a request for $8 million of that in the budget approved by the legislature.

No details

City officials say the plea court - formally called the "early disposition docket" - would share $4 million of the additional money with other court-ordered programs, once the state releases the funds. But the officials have not provided details to the council about how the money will be divided.

The idea of the plea court is to streamline the system, quickly ridding it of minor cases, such as drug possession and prostitution, so that prosecutors and judges can have time to focus on violent criminals.

Coordinating council members said they are concerned that without drug treatment and chemical analysis, the plan will fail.

The council is already under fire from legislative analysts who are urging that $1 million of the funds be withheld from the city because, they say, the reform plan is not fully developed.

Refusing pleas

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said that of the 510 people offered plea bargains or alternative sentencing programs such as community service during the past six weeks, about 20 percent accepted. The rest refused or did not show up for hearings.

"They are saying `No' [to the deals], because they don't have the chemical analysis," Jessamy said.

She added that drug treatment is an "integral part of [the plan's] success."

Lewin put it this way: "If the judge says, `I have no drug treatment available, I am going to send [the defendant] to jail,' there is no way that person is going to plead. He'll take his chances at trial."

Beginning tomorrow, cases on the fast-track docket will be heard five days a week, up from two days a week, at the Eastside Courthouse on East North Avenue. The next phase is expected to begin next month in the courtroom at the city's Central Booking and Intake Facility .

Key campaign issue

Much of the impetus for the plan started within two months of the mayor's inauguration in December. O'Malley, who made justice issues a cornerstone of his campaign, called for the fast-track docket to be put in place.

When the state's top judges balked at the idea, he locked horns with them publicly. In February, O'Malley sent Maryland's chief judge, Robert M. Bell, a description of the plan with childlike, stick-figure drawings.

In March, Lewin and the council - a volunteer group of city judges, prosecutors, public defenders, jail officials and representatives from federal agencies - stepped in to draft a plan acceptable to all agencies.

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