Changes sought in justice program

Goal is to make city's early disposition court effective, economical

Plea negotiations are key

December 13, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Leaders of the city's criminal justice system recommended improvements yesterday to Baltimore's early disposition court, which has been criticized as ineffective and a waste of government dollars.

The recommendations, drafted by a panel of 16 lawyers, judges and other criminal justice experts and adopted by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, include combining part of the 15-month-old court with another, more effective early disposition program called "quality case review."

Other suggestions include putting violation of probation cases on the early disposition docket, allowing all of a defendant's cases to be bundled; identifying and assessing defendants with drug addictions; and promoting legislation to decrease the number of minor cases that qualify for jury trials.

Although most of the suggestions were welcomed by prosecutors and public defenders who work closely with the early disposition system, both sides doubted the recommendations would remedy the court's central flaw: Only a small fraction of defendants accept plea deals offered them at early disposition court because they can get better results by waiting for a trial.

Asked what he thought of the proposal, Mayor Martin O'Malley said, "If it'll make it work better, I'm all for it." He added, however, that "the biggest variable is whether or not the plea offers are realistic."

The mayor has aggressively pushed early disposition court as a way to clear minor cases from court dockets, thereby creating more time for serious felony prosecutions. The idea was to offer defendants plea agreements within a day or two of their arrest, with the understanding that the offers would only get harsher the higher up the court system the defendant goes.

However, statistics show that about 80 percent of defendants reject initial offers, opting instead for district or circuit court trials, where their sentencing offers are often reduced -- or their cases dropped, because police and other witnesses often don't show up.

The mayor has blamed prosecutors for making the initial offers, which often include jail time, too punitive. But some judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys say the problems are systemic. In addition, a huge proportion of defendants are drug addicts, and the court has no services for them.

The report released yesterday seeks to streamline the early disposition system and increase plea success by combining the early disposition courtroom at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center with the "quality case review" program there, which offers plea agreements to incarcerated defendants within three days of their arrest, and gets them to court within two weeks. In that 7-year-old program, about 50 percent of defendants accept the offers, the city State's Attorney's Office said.

Although combining the programs will likely slow the process by a week or so, the hope is that guilty pleas will increase overall. "Additional time will make it possible to handle all the defendant's pending cases at one time, which will increase the incentive to plead early," the report says. The public defender's office will have more time to prepare cases, and "defendants arguably are more psychologically prepared to consider plea offers several days after arrest than immediately after," the report adds.

Page Croyder, a prosecutor who helped write the report, said the chief benefit of combining the programs will be saving the state and city money.

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