Attorney's justice reform work applauded as he leaves panel

Early Disposition Court among plans he oversaw

April 19, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

As a corporate lawyer at one of the city's blue-chip law firms, John H. Lewin Jr. never had to deal with the seamy underbelly of the criminal justice system.

But two years ago, Lewin volunteered to plunge into the system's problems when a council was created to repair the courts. The system had descended into chaos, and criminal defendants were being set free because their trials were delayed so long.

Yesterday, Lewin stepped down as coordinator of the group amid a standing ovation from criminal justice leaders who praised him for his commitment to improving the system.

"John Lewin has been a hero for Baltimore," said Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, chairman of the reform group, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. "He stepped forward at a time when we were in a crisis and quietly took the mantle of leadership."

His successor will be named in two weeks, Mitchell said. Lewin volunteered for the post when the council was formed in 1999 and was on loan from his law firm -- Venable, Baetjer and Howard -- for one year. He stayed for two.

"I did not want him to leave," Mitchell said. Lewin "was a very good person to work with. He's extremely intelligent, very pragmatic. ... He uses his skills in mediation to get people to do things they are not ordinarily prepared to do. He helps them to see a bigger picture."

Lewin, 61, oversaw many reforms undertaken by the council, which is composed of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the mayor, among others.

During Lewin's tenure, the council created a plan to limit court overtime costs incurred by police while ensuring officers appear for trials; prosecutors assumed the charging function from police to weed out weak cases; and a practice was put in place to get minor cases out of the system before they clog up the docket, a reform known as "Early Disposition Court." To effect change, he had to get prosecutors, defense attorneys, jail officials and judges to work together. That meant pushing, cajoling -- and exercising a lot of patience.

"When you've got people who are looking at things with different eyes, it is very easy for them to get distracted," Lewin said. "My function was more to keep people on track."

Judge Ellen M. Heller, the Circuit Court's administrative judge, said Lewin's determination propelled the council into making key reforms.

"With a lesser presence, some of the new initiatives might not have happened, or not have happened so quickly," she said.

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