Road to quicker justice

Judicial reform: Despite its early failings, Baltimore's fast-track court can be made to work.

March 27, 2002

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley's much-touted early disposition court has been a terrible disappointment. But in this city where the criminal justice system so often fails to deliver quick justice, the fast-track court still offers the best potential for workable reform.

A study group of experts recently recognized this when it recommended streamlining misdemeanor prosecutions as a way of addressing the 18-month-old ED experiment's shortcomings. Meanwhile, a separate evaluation proposed other fundamental changes.

Maryland legislators seem to be in a hurry to use the state's budget shortfall as an excuse for killing the ED court. But before they do anything, they should reflect on the studies. One was issued by District Judge Ben C. Clyburn's work group , the other by the Baltimore Efficiency and Economy Foundation and the Abell Foundation.

The thrust of the studies is this: An early disposition-type court - whatever it is called - is needed if Baltimore is ever to obliterate the insidious culture of endless postponements that has made a mockery of the whole criminal justice system. But such a court must have a docket of cases that can be resolved quickly.

The early disposition court never has had that, and as a result, only 17 percent of eligible cases have been resolved there.

"One reason that ED court does not see more cases resolved is that its docket is filled with more serious cases than was expected - often multiple offenders on probation for a conviction and facing drug-related charges," the foundations' evaluation concluded.

Such a complicated docket was an unanticipated consequence of the transfer of the charging function from the police to the State's Attorney's Office. That procedural change led to a new form of disciplining - "abatement by arrest" - as prosecutors freed 26 percent of arrestees without charging them.

Judge Clyburn's work group proposes a radical revision of ED court's docket:

In the morning, the court should concentrate on citations for nuisance crimes. The idea is to sentence those found guilty to five hours of community service and send them to the work site immediately.

The afternoon session would handle arraignments for more serious crimes. Defendants would be advised of the nature of the charges, maximum penalty and right to an attorney. They would also be given a summons for the first trial date.

These changes have won the unanimous support of the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and should be adopted as quickly as possible. Their net effect is quicker justice since fewer offenders could play the postponement game.

Legislators, too, should embrace these reforms. In particular, they must see to it that the fast-track court will have enough funds so that those sentenced to community service can actually fulfill their obligations. This is not the case now. Instead, defendants have to wait for days for a chance to atone for their offenses.

No wonder the ED court hasn't lived up to its promise.

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