GBC weighs court effort

City's new judicial entity seen meeting fast-track needs

January 11, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Plans for a downtown "community court" to handle minor offenses have been all but scrapped, three years after Baltimore business leaders bought a building, got a judge and rounded up more than $4 million in public and private funds to run it.

Now, the Greater Baltimore Committee, which initially proposed the court, is trying to see if some of the proposed court's unique aspects - such as on-site drug abuse and employment counseling - can be transferred to the city's new fast-track court, known as Early Disposition Court.

Donald C. Fry, executive vice president of GBC , said yesterday that the Early Disposition Court has essentially eclipsed the community court plan because the target population is the same: defendants charged with minor offenses.

"Now we have a new factor that comes into play that is designed to handle the same cases," Fry said.

He said leaders are examining whether to move forward on plans for the court at 33 S. Gay Street or to try to shift its funding to Early Disposition Court, which began operating in the fall at the east-side courthouse on North Avenue and in the courtroom in the city jail.

"We are performing all due diligence before we expend a considerable amount of private, foundation and public monies to determine if this is where the money should be properly spent," Fry said.

He said the board had not made a final determination about the fate of the court. But others said plans for such a court are dead.

"I think [community court] is looking for a way to re-invent itself, accomplish its mission in a different way," said Judge Martha F. Rasin, chief judge of the state's District Court system and a supporter of the community court. "There's a huge amount of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into [the project]. ... I hope that all the people who have put so much time and effort into it will see the fruits."

Baltimore business leaders have been lobbying for about five years to get a community court as a way to reduce "nuisance crimes" that discourage people from coming downtown. The project was based on the Midtown Manhattan Community Court, which has been credited with producing declines in prostitution and illegal vending in New York's Times Square.

The idea is that the court would hear cases in which defendants plead guilty immediately after they are arrested for such misdemeanorsas prostitution, minor drug offenses and loitering. In exchange for guilty pleas, the offenders would receive such services as drug treatment, on-site AIDS testing and employment counseling.

The GBC raised $2 million from private donors and foundations for the project. The South Gay street building was purchased for $275,000 with a grant from the Abell Foundation. The legislature appropriated $2.1 million for operating expenses, including creating an additional slot for a district judge, which has been filled.

But the project struggled from the beginning. Some public safety agencies bristled at the idea but, after a year, the committee got letters of agreement from all involved, Fry said. Conflict developed about the location of the court, as it would be close to the children's attraction, Port Discovery.

The legislature also imposed budget language, including feasibility studies for courts in Northwest Baltimore and Montgomery County, which delayed the project. Costs, including repairing roof damage to the building from Hurricane Floyd, were also escalating,according to Fry.

Fry said that none of the state funds had been spent on the project and much of the design work to revamp the building had been donated by architects.

He said GBC is "firmly committed" to the idea of offering aid to defendants to help stop recidivism.

Leaders are meeting with members of the criminal justice system to see if the service component of the court can be carried out in the Early Disposition Court.

Peter Saar, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, said issues that need to be discussed are space for drug-treatment providers and mental-health counselors so they can be on-site in Early Disposition Court.

Rasin said moving such resources to the early disposition court would improve the project, which she worries offers little to help stop recidivism.

"To the extent that the community court defendant-type recidivism issues can be addressed could be really good because I think that's what everybody wants," she said.

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