Criminal overcrowding

October 14, 2002

ANOTHER OVERCROWDING crisis is looming at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center. The lockup is said to be so cramped that officials at a recent meeting joked about perhaps having to house pretrial suspects on barges in the harbor.

This is no laughing matter. As arrests have increased over the past year, so apparently have the numbers of suspects who either don't qualify for bail or don't have the money for it. They end up spending an average of 86 days at Central Booking before their first appearance before a judge, according to the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

During the past two months, Correctional Services Secretary Stuart O. Simms has repeatedly urged the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to take action to alleviate overcrowding. Council members have politely listened to him, but have done nothing to resolve the issue. The reason: Rival agencies are wary of the solutions Mr. Simms' department is proposing.

It's appalling that this kind of mistrust exists 3 1/2 years after the council was formed to end turf battles in the poorly functioning criminal justice system.

The corrections department rekindled the turf tensions by contending that overcrowding could quickly be alleviated if only judges heard a wider range of cases in the courtroom at Central Booking. It also proposed speeding up violation-of-probation cases by limiting judges' roles in hearing them.

These issues have been highly contentious for years. Because most District Court judges think a courtroom should never have been built at Central Booking in the first place, they have severely limited its docket. They are jealous about retaining their traditional prerogatives in probation matters as well.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has recognized these problems for at least two years, but so far has been unable to initiate meaningful reform. It should redouble its efforts. As it now stands, the numbers indicate Central Booking is in violation of a 1993 federal consent decree.

This serious situation is a test of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council's credibility. It can be resolved only if all council members -- from police to judges -- are willing to erase bottlenecks that have long been obvious.

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