Court docket goal unmet

O'Malley, members of panel defend plan to speed minor cases

March 15, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Seven months after its launch, a program designed to dispose of half of minor court cases within 24 hours is falling short of the mark, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council announced yesterday.

The disposition rate has been 32.4 percent. But panel members and Mayor Martin O'Malley - he set the 50 percent goal for the program - said they are not disappointed with the number, which they expect to rise.

"I think we're making progress," O'Malley said yesterday in a telephone interview hours after the council met.

"The early dispositions aren't an end in and of themselves," the mayor said. "We could be disposing of 50 percent upfront, but if you're not doing a better job of prosecuting the more serious crimes at the same time, you're not accomplishing what you need to accomplish."

"The more we get minor cases off our desks, the more the quality of the gun prosecutions will improve, quality in terms of the numbers of convictions as well as the average sentences attached to them."

That O'Malley is pleased with the progress pleased members of the council.

"I think that this group ... has accomplished an extraordinary amount in a short period of time," said John Henry Lewin Jr., the council's project coordinator. "The people who worked on this really did work cooperatively ... to try to come up with a program to meet the mayor's challenge. I think six or eight months from now, we'll reach that 50 percent goal."

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council comprises judges, lawyers and other law enforcement officials. It was formed two years ago and implemented Early Disposition Court in August to try to reduce the number of cases clogging the docket.

Early disposition cases are processed at the North Avenue courthouse and at the Central Booking and Intake Facility. Minor offenses include, among others, urinating in public, having an open container of alcohol in public and disorderly conduct.

"If you look at the short history of the court and the work it has accomplished in that period, you have to qualify it as a success," said Circuit Court Judge David B. Mitchell, chief of the criminal docket.

Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller said she thinks O'Malley's 50 percent goal can be realized.

"Right now, there's no question, people are disappointed that there are not a sufficient number of cases in which defendants are pleading out. We are all trying to find a way to make it more effective. ... This is a wonderful opportunity, this court, to turn around in a very quick manner the lesser crimes that clog our system."

Not all council members think the court works. Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway raised several questions at yesterday's meeting, including whether putting resources into Early Disposition Court is wise.

Conaway also asked why police are arresting people for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct or urinating in public, a comment that appeared to upset Deputy Police Commissioner Barry W. Powell.

"They are minor offenses, and an arrest is made to abate the problem," Powell said. He said there's an "outcry" from Baltimoreans whose lives are disrupted by minor offenses. It's a "quality of life issue," Powell said.

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