Backlog prompts creation of courts

Flood of drug cases leads administrative judge to make pledge

November 07, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A recent flood of drug cases in Baltimore Circuit Court prompted the city's top judge to announce yesterday the creation of three new drug courts.

Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller said within a month she hopes to have two new trial courts and one new arraignment court up and running.

They will be the first new drug courts in 12 years.

"We have a situation of a significant increase in arrests, which poses a serious challenge for us," said Heller, who is stepping down as administrative judge today because her term is expiring.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy called the number of recent indictments "exorbitant."

In September last year, there were 193 drug indictments, compared with this September, when they more than tripled to 632, according to the state's attorney's office.

In October last year, there were 152 drug indictments, compared with 354 this October.

"This is a crisis in terms of the number of cases," Jessamy said.

Judge John N. Prevas called the creation of the new courts "normal adjustments." He said such overflows happen every several years as policing strategies change.

"You don't just sit there and let your dockets go out of kilter," Prevas said.

Prevas said the increase in indictments can be attributed in part to Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark's Organized Crime Division, a 112-member unit that began in May by dispatching detectives throughout the city to arrest drug dealers.

In one day in July, they arrested 103 people.

"Criminal dockets have increased in Baltimore and the system has a responsibility to step in and respond quickly," Clark said yesterday in a news release.

One of the chief problems that has contributed to the backlog in cases is a crammed court docket that does not allow any arraignments to be scheduled.

At an arraignment, a defendant pleads guilty or not guilty, and is assigned a trial date.

It also is a first chance to reach a plea agreement.

There are 150 indicted cases piled up in the state's attorney's office waiting for an arraignment date.

Heller said she is working with prosecutors, public defenders, police and court personnel to make sure the defendants have timely trials.

"All of the criminal justice agencies affected are working together to make sure they are processed in a timely manner," Heller said.

She said there are no available city judges to staff the new courts, so she is trying to get judges from other circuits in the state to fill in.

The state's attorney's office and the public defender also say they don't have staff for the new courts.

The state's attorney's office is asking Mayor Martin O'Malley for an estimated $750,000 to hire 12 people. Elizabeth L. Julian, who heads Baltimore's Office of the Public Defender, said yesterday that her staff is at its limit in terms of new cases.

"We are unable to absorb more cases and give effective representation," Julian said.

Sun staff writers Laura Vozzella and Kimberly A.C. Wilson contributed to this article.

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