Two court programs combined at city jail

Change streamlines the process, group says

February 28, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

An early-disposition court that was among several programs pushed by Mayor Martin O'Malley to make Baltimore's criminal justice system more efficient was quietly merged yesterday with a similar process at the city jail.

Defendants confined at Central Booking and Intake Center will now see a judge after they have been locked up for three days instead of one, and the judge will be able to address all their pending cases instead of just the one for which they had just been arrested.

O'Malley said that although he did not know the change was happening, he was pleased.

"I was encouraging them to do it as quickly as possible," O'Malley said. "It's something we've been working on for months."

The mayor has aggressively pushed early disposition as a way to clear minor cases from court dockets, thereby creating more time for serious felony prosecutions.

Yesterday's move collapses the early-disposition court at the jail into a similar but more effective program called "quality case review."

Quality case review, created seven years ago, offers plea agreements to incarcerated defendants within three days of their arrest, and gets them to court within two weeks. About 50 percent of defendants accept the offers, according to the city state's attorney's office.

Early-disposition court, created a year and a half ago, offers plea agreements within a day or two of arrest, with the understanding that the offers would get harsher the higher up the court system a defendant goes.

But statistics show that about 80 percent of defendants reject initial offers for various reasons, sometimes because they are awaiting bail money. Other times they want to wait for a trial, at which sentencing offers are often reduced -- or cases dropped, because police and other witnesses sometimes don't appear.

Another reason defendants reject offers in early-disposition court is that they have other pending cases, and it can deal with only one case at a time, according to prosecutors. In quality case review, however, a defendant can wrap up all pending cases at the same time.

"This streamlines the process," said Romaine Williams, executive director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a local court reform group.

The program merger follows recommendations drafted by a panel of 16 lawyers, judges and other criminal justice experts and adopted by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in December.

No change was made to the city's other early-disposition court, at the Eastside District Court, which has no quality case review.

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