Jessamy asks that court be eliminated

She urges legislators to cut off funds for early dispositions

O'Malley calls for reform

Hearing marks second time two adversaries do battle in Annapolis

February 02, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy called the mayor's favored court reform program a failure yesterday, and said state legislators should stop funding it.

With Mayor Martin O'Malley beside her, Jessamy told the House Appropriations Committee that the $4.7 million early disposition court should be eliminated and the money spent to hire more prosecutors and strengthen existing court reform programs.

The hearing was the second time in the past two weeks the mayor and state's attorney appeared together before lawmakers to discuss the court's future. And, as in the previous hearing before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, their joint appearance was marked by tension and sniping on both sides.

O'Malley accused Jessamy's office of not prosecuting enough gun cases and of withholding crime statistics from his office. Jessamy accused O'Malley of misleading legislators by giving them inaccurate information that exaggerates the court's success.

Although Jessamy has come close to calling for the court's demise before, yesterday was the first time she publicly asked that it no longer be funded. The court, started 18 months ago at the urging of O'Malley as a way to clear minor criminal cases from the city docket, has been the source of a running feud between Jessamy and the mayor.

"The court has become an added layer of bureaucracy achieving few results, at great cost to taxpayers," said Jessamy, saying the court has been responsible for only a 5 percent reduction in the city docket.

O'Malley countered that the court needs reform - not elimination - and asked legislators to give planned changes to the program a chance to take hold. O'Malley said the court, combined with other initiatives, is responsible for a 40 percent drop in the number of cases on court dockets.

"Our goal is simple," the mayor said. "Improve the quality of gun prosecutions to remove the most violent criminals from our streets. And our strategy is equally simple: If you dispose of minor nonviolent cases up front, you can spend more time improving gun prosecutions."

Two city judges also testified that the early disposition court will achieve better results once it is merged with other programs designed to free up the docket. Officials also plan to put violation-of-probation cases on the early-disposition docket.

The intention of the court was to give defendants a lenient plea option within 24 hours of their arrest. If they refused the offer, plea offers were supposed to get harsher as defendants moved up the court system.

But statistics compiled by the state's attorney's and public defender's offices indicate the opposite happens: Most defendants refuse the first offer and are rewarded with better deals the longer they hold out. Some defendants choose to go to trial because of the likelihood that witnesses won't show up, which usually prompts prosecutors to drop the charges.

Jessamy drew fire two weeks ago from Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, when the prosecutor criticized the court before the senator's panel. Yesterday, Jessamy had a more sympathetic audience.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he will seriously consider Jessamy's opposition to the program.

"In a constrained budget, $4.7 million is a reduction the committee could easily take," said Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. He noted that Judge Martha F. Rasin, former chief of the District Court, recently wrote a letter to a member of his committee saying the court was not working.

But Rawlings cautioned that he does not want to eliminate the court if it would hamper O'Malley's crime-fighting efforts.

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