Howard County court officials are studying ways to shorten the time it takes to resolve the large number of criminal and motor vehicle cases moved from District Court to Circuit Court after a defendant requests a jury trial.
The cases, which account for more than half the criminal filings in Howard Circuit Court, often wend their way slowly through the system over a period of months and end with a plea or some other court action, not a jury trial, said Diane O. Leasure, the county's administrative circuit judge.
"A lot of people who request jury trials rarely want jury trials," she said.
An initial meeting on the issue in the fall led to the creation of a committee to study ways to reduce the number of unnecessary transfers - those made by defendants looking for more time to find an attorney or for a better plea in a different courthouse, she said.
The committee, whose members include Howard State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone and Carol A. Hanson, the district public defender for Howard and Carroll counties, will take a look at what other jurisdictions have done to reduce transfers - called jury trial prayers - by more than 80 percent, Leasure said.
Although juries are seated only in Circuit Court and any defendant charged with a crime that carries a jail sentence of more than 90 days is eligible for a jury trial, most criminal and motor vehicle cases start in District Court.
Court officials say defendants have used the right to a jury trial as a delay tactic, asking for one if a District Court judge denies a postponement or if they don't like the judge they've drawn that day.
Although the bulk of those cases never go to trial, the number can overwhelm Circuit Court dockets, judges say.
The totals persuaded Montgomery and Baltimore counties to put "instant" jury trial systems in place several years ago, and judicial officials in both counties say they have seen the number of jury trial prayers plummet.
Each county is able to accommodate a defendant's request for a jury that day, or the next day for Baltimore County cases that originate in Catonsville or Essex. Montgomery and Baltimore counties have judges and jurors available for the trials and a system in place to immediately move case files between buildings, judges said.
In Baltimore County, the system has cut the number of jury trial prayers, which peaked at about 10,000 a year, by 90 percent, said Judge John G. Turnbull II, that county's administrative circuit judge.
"We literally, at times, had to hold out a ... judge to handle prayed jury trials," he said. "They're a mere blip on the radar screen at this point."
In Montgomery County, the "instant jury demand" system has reduced transfers, from 40 to 60 a month to eight to 12, said Judge Ann S. Harrington, that county's administrative circuit judge.
The system works in larger jurisdictions because there are enough sitting Circuit Court judges - 20 in Montgomery and 16 in Baltimore County - to handle an immediate jury trial request, Harrington said. Howard has five Circuit Court judges.
"Smaller jurisdictions have to ... work with the District Court bench to see if they can eliminate some of the reasons people make jury trial demands," she said.
Still, McCrone said the results from the larger counties are "proof positive" that officials' sense about jury trial prayers - that defendants who ask for jury trials rarely want one - is correct.
"There's something to the solution that they found," he said of Baltimore and Montgomery counties. "We'll be looking at that, I'm sure."
Leasure said the Howard committee, which will meet this month, will look at other counties' initiatives while searching for other ways to shorten the time it takes to move cases between courts and set hearing dates.
In Howard County, jury trial prayers have accounted for about 54 percent of criminal and motor vehicle case filings in Circuit Court for the past two years, according to figures from the clerk's office. If criminal and motor vehicle appeals from District Court are added to the mix, the percentage jumps to nearly two-thirds.
"What we're trying to do is see if there's any way we can get through these cases more quickly ... obviously not jeopardizing any fair trial or due process rights along the way," Leasure said.