Mayor Martin O'Malley's legislative wish list includes two ambitious criminal justice proposals aimed at reducing violent crime and solving more cases statewide. But a tight budget year and constitutional concerns about his proposals are threatening his plans even before they reach the General Assembly.
The first item on O'Malley's legislative agenda is a bill that would deny bail for violent offenders who have been convicted of a violent crime in the past, a change that would revoke judges' ability to set bail for these defendants.
Another proposal - No. 3 on the 12-item list, which includes tax initiatives and a proposal for ticketing speeders caught by radar cameras - asks for $4 million to beef up the state's DNA testing and analysis laboratories.
It would eventually require that genetic samples be taken from anyone arrested for a felony and from those arrested for some misdemeanors. DNA samples are now taken only from people convicted of murder, sex crimes, child abuse or aggravated assault.
O'Malley's bail proposal is in response to what he describes as the disturbing frequency with which dangerous criminals are returned to the streets, where they sometimes commit more crimes or intimidate witnesses and victims.
"You only have to read the newspaper every week to see cases where people get out pretrial, and then we throw up our hands and act as if the witnesses, civilian witnesses, are somehow derelict in their duty by not coming forward to testify in court against the guy who's in jail for two days and who's now out trying to keep them intimidated," O'Malley said.
The law already limits court commissioners' authority to set bail in such cases. Commissioners, who make initial pretrial release decisions, also cannot set bail for defendants charged with violent crimes who allegedly commit another violent crime while out on bail.
But in most cases, judges can reduce a defendant's "no bail" status by setting bail or by releasing the defendant with certain conditions.
Fine line on bail
The spirit of O'Malley's bail proposal appears to run counter to suggested judicial rule changes that a Court of Appeals committee will discuss next week in Crownsville.
Those amendments seek to increase the number of people released without bail, or on the least-punitive bail.
Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and Maryland District Court Chief Judge James N. Vaughan declined to comment on the proposal, but lawmakers interviewed this week said O'Malley's bail bill, now being drafted, raises constitutional questions - as have previous attempts at bail reform.
"It's a very fine line you draw when you try to interfere with bail," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat and a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
"It's a very touchy issue in the Judiciary Committee. It's going to be scrutinized very carefully because of the constitutional issues."
Even if a suspect previously committed a violent crime, he still must be presumed innocent in relation to any new charges, Montague said. "Just because he's done prior acts, it doesn't mean that he's done this particular act."
Crowding at jail
In addition, a "no bail" policy could worsen crowding in the detention center, Montague said.
LaMont W. Flanagan, state commissioner of Pretrial Detention and Services, frequently complains that the city jail is overcrowded by a few hundred inmates.
Flanagan and Simms head a statewide bail reform committee that will consider various proposals - including O'Malley's - in the coming months, Simms said.
Solving `cold cases'
O'Malley says his other priority, the DNA bill, would help solve some of the city's 5,000 "cold cases" dating back to the early 1980s, for which DNA samples exist but have not been tested. He's requesting $4 million to create a permanent statewide fund to pay for equipment and staff.
"We have a ton of rape kits that have never been tested, and we have a whole lot of people that have been arrested, been in and out of the criminal justice system, who have never had a sample of DNA taken from them," O'Malley said.
"We could solve a lot of cases, give victims a lot of peace, and most importantly keep habitual predators off our streets for longer periods of time if we would catch up, for a relatively low amount of money, with where DNA science is," the mayor said.
Ed Koch, director of Baltimore's crime lab, said Maryland's existing DNA database contains about 13,500 felons, compared with a list of 150,000 in Virginia. Nineteen states test every convicted felon, and New York tests people convicted of some misdemeanors.
But lawmakers say unless O'Malley can show a $4 million cost savings as a result of his DNA plan, the proposal is unlikely to be greeted enthusiastically this legislative session because of the dreary economic climate.
"I don't think the governor or the General Assembly is ready to fund [the DNA proposal]," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a Baltimore Democrat.
Rawlings prefers a different approach to tackling crime in Baltimore and is pushing for grants to pay for more police officers on the streets, among other initiatives, he said.
Regardless of how far his bills get, O'Malley's ideas will be respectfully studied, legislators said.
"Any initiative that the mayor has to lessen crime in the city, I'm going to give it serious consideration," said Democratic Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city Senate delegation.
Staff writer Gady A. Epstein contributed to this article.