Judges seek aid in petty cases

`Diversion' program to clear city dockets needs funding, they say

May 09, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's top judges are appealing to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for money that would fund a struggling criminal justice "diversion" program designed to keep petty cases off city dockets.

The judges contend that the program is an important component of the city's push to resolve minor cases within days of a person's arrest through early disposition court, thereby freeing the city's resources for serious violent crimes.

"The proposed budgetary and personnel reductions place that court in serious peril," reads an April 29 letter, signed by District Court Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews, Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller, and Judge Stuart R. Berger, who is chairman of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

The diversion program is a way for defendants charged with nonviolent offenses to have their cases dropped by prosecutors. If they qualify for the program, defendants can have their criminal records cleared of the charges if they complete various conditions, such as drug treatment and community service.

The program is not new, but the city's criminal justice leaders decided last winter to greatly expand it in concert with the early disposition initiative. The hitch, they soon found, is that there doesn't seem to be enough staff to meet their goal - which is to increase the number of diversion cases from 200 to 400 at any given time.

From March 21 to April 14, prosecutors recommended 88 defendants for the diversion program. Fewer than 10 were accepted.

LaMont W. Flanagan, who heads the city jail, has four employees who handle diversion cases. He has capped their workloads at 50 cases each. If the court wants to double that, he said, he must have more staff.

"I'm not going to burden existing staff with additional offenders and put public safety at risk," he said yesterday.

However, the state's exceptionally tight budget, which has led to a hiring freeze, means the city must get permission from the governor to hire more diversion case managers.

Michael Sarbanes, a criminal justice adviser to Townsend, said the request to unfreeze these positions was being reviewed.

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