State legislators order city to weigh having night court

Study of effort to reduce backlog is budget mandate

April 10, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Troubled by Baltimore's overloaded court system, state legislators have ordered the city to consider extending the dockets into a "night court" to alleviate congestion.

"Night courts work in other large cities," said Del. Joan Cadden, chairwoman of the House of Delegates subcommittee that oversees public safety. "Why not here?"

Cadden demanded a report on the night court idea by July from the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a local court reform group that includes the mayor, state's attorney, police commissioner, top judges and others.

Cadden is one of the legislators who controls the purse strings for the group, which has an annual budget of $238,000. She included language mandating the night court study in the state budget that was approved Saturday.

"The subcommittee is tired of hearing excuses, tired of hearing that the courthouse is overcrowded," Cadden said.

But Baltimore's judges and local court officials say the night court idea, which has been rejected in the past, is not the smartest way to lighten the caseload.

"It has the appeal of a quick fix to a problem that is complex," said Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, who is in charge of the criminal docket. "The problem is driven by a huge volume of drug-related cases."

Baltimore's Circuit Court deals with a crushing 1,000 trial-a-week criminal docket. Postponements are commonplace, sometimes because of a prosecutor or defense lawyer, but other times because no court is available to hear the case.

Keeping the courts open at night, Glynn said, would require night staffing by jurors, judges, lawyers, correctional officers, clerks and sheriff's deputies.

Cadden suggested keeping courts open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then opening again from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

"The bottom line is the courts are overcrowded and they're not moving the dockets quickly enough," Cadden said. "They need to do something to address this backlog. We're willing to give them the money to support that."

The coordinating council, however, completed a preliminary report on the night court issue and found that it is "unlikely to offer any benefit to the efficient handling of district or circuit court matters."

In salary alone, according to the report, one month of night shift in District Court would cost $327,448 for judges, clerks and courthouse security.

That does not include the public defender, prosecutor or public safety personnel.

The report looked at night court in other jurisdictions and found that in Oregon, night court mostly served traffic, small claims and landlord-tenant cases. It says the courts were "politically popular" but were used lightly and "not worth" the operating costs.

It found that Toronto's night court was determined to be inefficient because many of the defendants failed to appear for their traffic cases.

Manhattan has a drug-related night court, which needed more judges and court workers to cover the late shifts, according to the report.

Glynn said instead of creating another shift in the courthouse, the criminal justice system should find alternative ways to deal with drug cases.

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