`Early disposition' court in city risks losing funding

Lawmaker concerned about its effectiveness

November 11, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

The chairman of a powerful legislative committee has threatened to halt state funding of Baltimore's "early disposition" court unless the city's top criminal justice officials can show the 15-month-old program is worthy of further investment.

"As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, I have a responsibility to make sure we're not just throwing good money after bad," Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, said. "If it's not working, either fix it or we're not going to fund it."

Rawlings first expressed concern about the court's effectiveness months ago. With less than two months before the General Assembly convenes, he said he still has not received a full answer to his inquiry from the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which oversees the new court and other reform programs.

Early disposition court was promoted by Mayor Martin O'Malley as a way to weed minor criminal cases from the overburdened court system. The idea was to give defendants "first offer, best offer" plea options within 24 hours of their arrest. If they refuse, plea offers are supposed to get harsher as defendants move higher up in the court system.

But statistics compiled over the summer by the city state's attorney's office and the city public defender's office show the opposite is true. Most defendants refuse the first offer at early disposition court, and are rewarded with better deals the longer they hold out.

Statistics from the mayor's office show that in September, about 13 percent of defendants accepted offers at early disposition court - a percentage that has been consistent over time.

Tracking its clients through one of the city's two early disposition courts for a year, the public defender's office found 66 percent of defendants ended up with a better offer if they waited to go to District Court or Circuit Court.

In response to skeptics, O'Malley has argued that isolating the court's failures misses a larger point: More petty cases are being flushed from the criminal justice system thanks to a sweeping early case review initiative, of which the new court is only one piece.

"If that's all you're going to count," O'Malley said Friday of the court statistics, "then you're going to call it a failure. But the fact is we're disposing of around 40 percent of the petty cases upfront."

If the court is not working perfectly, he said, that's because prosecutors' initial offers are unrealistic. "There's no legislative or administrative fix," O'Malley added. "A lot of this comes down to the state's attorney's office."

City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has blamed the mayor for pursuing a "failed" program.

This fall, after reading an article in The Sun about problems at early disposition court, Rawlings wrote a letter to Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, then chairman of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

"I would like the Coordinating Council to provide information to me about why the early disposition program is failing and what remedies the council intends to implement to ensure the program's success or discontinuation," Rawlings wrote Sept. 4. "The state has invested heavily in the early disposition program - about $4.7 million each in fiscal 2001 and 2002," and gives money to the Coordinating Council, Rawlings wrote.

In a response dated Sept. 28, Mitchell noted that a commission would be set up to study early disposition court and the "entire early review procedure."

That committee, headed by District Court Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews, is working on a draft of its final report, Romaine N. Williams, executive director of the coordinating council, said last week.

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