Court reform feud shifts to Annapolis

Jessamy hits mayor's fast-track program, is rebuked by legislator

Senator is `flabbergasted'

State's attorney tells panel mayoral report is a `smoke screen'

January 16, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In a rare side-by-side appearance with Mayor Martin O'Malley in Annapolis yesterday, city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy intensified her criticism of the mayor's favored court reform program - and was instantly lambasted by a key legislator for her remarks.

Jessamy said the early disposition court, designed to flush minor criminal cases from the city dockets, had "achieved little success over the past 18 months and provides little value to the criminal justice system." She said the mayor's statistical reporting on the program amounted to a "smoke screen" and an "attempt to mislead the public and the General Assembly."

Her harsh tone was matched in a response from Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "I am mightily disappointed in your testimony," Hoffman said to Jessamy. "I don't think that you help the city or that you help the system of justice by just throwing stones. ... I'm just flabbergasted."

Yesterday's confrontation occurred at a briefing on the city's early disposition program requested by the Senate committee. Although Jessamy and O'Malley have been feuding for many months about the court and other criminal justice matters, yesterday was perhaps the first time state lawmakers observed their prickly relationship up close.

Beyond making for an unusually tense presentation, the exchange could have fiscal implications for the city. Hoffman's committee has much control over the governor's supplemental budget, which could include money for the state's attorney's office. Jessamy has long complained that her budget is chronically underfunded.

Last year, Jessamy received $1.7 million in supplemental funds, which paid for 14 homicide and gun-crimes prosecutors. In addition, Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, has been instrumental in the past in freeing up money for Jessamy's office and was an important supporter of the early disposition court.

Hoffman's counterpart in the House, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, has been skeptical of the court's success and has told city judicial officials that he will oppose its funding in the future unless he sees improvement.

The early disposition court - a project pushed by O'Malley - started a year and a half ago in an effort to get rid of minor criminal cases by offering defendants plea agreements that would become less favorable if rejected initially.

O'Malley's theory was that if petty cases disappeared early, prosecutors could spend more time on felony cases. But because defendants rarely take the initial plea offer - in expectation of getting a better offer later - the court has not produced results.

In his testimony yesterday, O'Malley said the combination of three early disposition programs, including the court, was disposing of 40 percent of minor cases, a number he hopes to push to 50 percent. He blamed Jessamy's office for lingering shortcomings.

"Sadly, we have not been able to see a marked improvement in the prosecution of gun cases or in cases involving repeat offenders," he said. "The quality of the prosecution on early disposition is an issue, too."

O'Malley also mentioned several times that he tries to attend every Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting in Baltimore, and that other "principals" should, too. Jessamy has not shown up at the meetings for many months.

When her turn came, Jessamy said combining statistics on the court's results with other, successful early disposition efforts by her office was a disingenuous way to get the public to keep funding a failing program.

In closing, she said the $4.7 million the state invested in the court would be better spent on attaching job placement, mental health and drug treatment programs to it. Those suggestions, as well as combining the court with another, more effective early disposition program, are already part of a Coordinating Council plan to reconfigure the court.

Hoffman said she was offended that Jessamy had not taken a more cooperative approach. "For you to sit here and say that the pieces that your office is responsible for are working, but that this court piece is not, is harmful to the city that you have sworn to represent," she said. "The idea is to figure out how to dispose of disposable cases."

Jessamy responded by saying that if she went before the committee and declared all was well within the early disposition court, "I would be dishonest with this legislature and I would be dishonest to myself. Everything is not working perfectly."

Afterward, Jessamy said she was somewhat surprised by Hoffman's reaction. "I'm trying to be fiscally responsible," she said. "It's important that the legislature has the facts."

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