This is no sitcom

April 18, 2003

LEGISLATORS HAVE been watching too many Night Court reruns if they think extended hours alone will erase the backlogs of Baltimore's criminal courts. Far more is needed, particularly a new approach to the handling of drug cases.

"Night courts work in other large cities. Why not here?" asked Del. Joan Cadden, as she ordered the city to produce a report by July for her House of Delegates subcommittee that oversees public safety.

Her question has been asked before.

Seven years ago, the Baltimore City Council - at the instigation of then-Councilman Martin O'Malley - spent lots of time and money trying to figure out how this city could duplicate the success of New York, which claimed to dispose of 65 percent of its misdemeanor cases within 29 hours of arrest. A night court was among the suggested answers.

The idea went nowhere. Judges didn't want to hear about it, and neither did bureaucracies accustomed to daytime routines.

After Mr. O'Malley became mayor, he cajoled the District Court to create a separate, daytime Early Resolution Court to accept guilty pleas in misdemeanor cases. It got off to a rough start because few defendants wanted to plead guilty.

In recent months, the Early Resolution Court has started to show some promise, but its potential is limited. An overwhelming majority of criminal cases involve drugs. And drug defendants are especially reluctant to accept a guilty plea. They know if they play the postponement game, chances are good the whole case will evaporate before it comes to trial.

A Circuit Court-level night court - even if it operated only from 7 to 9 p.m., as Delegate Cadden suggests - would be prohibitively expensive. And it still would not address the core problem - the huge volume of drug cases that paralyzes the whole criminal justice machinery.

A far more effective approach would be for legislators to help the Baltimore courts develop a mechanism to separate important drug prosecutions from run-of-the-mill cases that are likely to go nowhere. Focusing resources on the high-priority cases would alleviate backlogs and improve the courts' efficiency.

Routine drug cases would not necessarily be dropped. But because the justice system is so overburdened, the success of such winnowing would depend on more widespread drug treatment sentences and other forms of alternative sanctions.

A sitcom typically ends in 30 minutes; a criminal case often drags on for months. Lawmakers ought to be researching more practical ways to narrow the gap.

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