City court's funding is threatened

Rawlings concerned about effectiveness of early disposition

Most refuse first deals

Justice officials must show program worth investment

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.

"It would certainly be in their interest to get it to us before the [legislative] session starts," he said.

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 they 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. I am anxious to receive this information," 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 reminded Mitchell. However some of that money was spent on early case review programs other than early disposition court.

In a response dated Sept. 28, Mitchell wrote: "It is premature to assess whether parts of the early disposition process as one component of a coordinated procedure has achieved success, although some wish to make that determination on less than complete information."

He noted that a commission would soon be set up to study early disposition court and the "entire early review procedure."

Mitchell's letter included statistics showing that early disposition court was working far better than some participants had initially reported. But soon after sending that response, Mitchell realized that the statistics, due to a misunderstanding, did not refer to early disposition court at all.

A letter correcting the error - and noting the difficulty in gathering reliable numbers - was drafted Oct. 18. Its tone was more critical of the new court; Mitchell spoke of "identifying and bringing resolution to many of the issues that plague the early disposition court and prevent its optimum effective operations."

But that letter was never sent. On Thursday, Mitchell wrote Rawlings again, saying he was "embarrassed to acknowledge" the oversight.

Meanwhile, a committee to study the court has been set up, headed by District Court Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews. It is working on a draft of its final report, Romaine N. Williams, executive director of the coordinating council, said last week.

Early disposition court has been fraught with troubles since it was first proposed. O'Malley enraged some initial critics of the idea by distributing stick-figure drawings showing how it would work. Since then, prosecutors, judges and other officials have squabbled over who is to blame for the court's shortcomings.

Rawlings said last week the fighting should stop. "A lot of people's feathers were frayed over this," he said. "I personally thought there was just ... unnecessary activity that didn't promote the objective of improving the court operation."

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