Playing the blame game

Drug lab flap: Finger-pointing among criminal justice agencies shows no sense of common mission.

February 18, 2002

BALTIMORE CITY prosecutors say - and police acknowledge - that hundreds of drug cases have been dropped in recent months because laboratory analyses could not be produced in a timely manner or were misfiled.

The public deserves better, yet all it has gotten is finger-pointing from different agencies.

The problem was supposed to have been fixed 13 months ago, when Mayor Martin O'Malley promised a 24-hour turnaround on all drugs that were confiscated as evidence and submitted to the lab for testing.

But with an average of 33,000 requests for drug analysis every year, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris says the laboratory has been overwhelmed, and the average turnaround time for results is almost six days. That's a far cry from the promised 24 hours.

And since late summer, another serious problem has arisen. More than 1,000 drug cases, mostly misdemeanors, have been dropped or postponed because test results were not in or could not be matched with cases.

Prosecutors say that from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1 of this year, for example, 12 cases, including one felony, were dropped for lack of laboratory results. Nine others were postponed, increasing the probability they would later be dismissed.

Attorneys in the prosecutor's office blame the police, police accuse processors at the Central Booking and Intake Center, where managers, in turn, contend police officers provide them with inaccurate case numbers, making it impossible to match the evidence with the appropriate suspect.

Three years after a court crisis triggered the creation of the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, the various cogs in the machinery still don't mesh, and criminals are walking free.

At the coordinating council meeting last Wednesday, Commissioner Norris promised that the mess will end by summer, when a long-awaited computer system will make it easier to match drug analyses with defendants.

But meanwhile, the mismatches persist.

This situation did not become acute overnight. It points to inexcusable sloppiness on the part of arresting officers or of Central Booking processors. And even after the problem was identified, various law enforcement bureaucracies found it easier to resort to finger-pointing than trying to solve it.

Despite the criminal justice council's persistent efforts to promote cooperation, rival agencies still don't have a sense of common mission. As long as that continues, the criminal justice system here isn't living up to its name.

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