Unnecessary delays

April 19, 2005

IN THE past seven days, Baltimore public defenders identified dozens of clients who waited days in jail before they saw a judicial officer - a violation of the law. The illegality is symptomatic of a pretrial detention system overwhelmed by arrests and showing it. This isn't a one-time occurrence. On several days last week, as many as 40 defendants spent more than 24 hours - the legal limit - in jail before seeing a court commissioner. What's worse, even when defendants are ordered released because cases have been dropped, the bureaucracy can take hours to free them. There's no one person to blame, but plenty of factors that contribute to this unjust and unacceptable state of limbo.

The city's campaign to thwart opportunities for drug dealing and improve city neighborhoods has led to thousands of arrests for loitering, public drinking and nuisance crimes. Those arrests can tie up a police officer for hours if the city's decade-old Central Booking and Intake Center is backed up. To avoid processing delays, some officers file their charges by computer from police stations, but technology snafus have left some detainees without charging documents. And yet when all is said and done, prosecutors drop a third of the charges against people arrested for minor drug offenses and nuisance crimes because of a lack of evidence or because the defendant's jail time has exceeded the sentence he would have received if convicted.

That's how the ordeal of two Baltimore County teens ended recently. The girls, who were stopped for speeding in the city, spent the weekend in jail before their charges for allegedly resisting arrest were dropped. Neither 18-year-old had been arrested or stopped for a traffic violation before, according to their lawyer.

But the problem at central booking is not just about the number of arrests. Staffing also is an issue. "Nobody gets out of here in a few hours," said one participant. Conditions can be grim, with cells meant for eight people holding twice that number. Under Maryland court rules, a defendant must see a commissioner "without unnecessary delay" and "in no event later than 24 hours." A commissioner reviews the charges and sets bail. Over four recent days, the public defender's office identified 122 defendants who were held longer than 24 hours, and in some cases, for as long as 45, 53, 65 and, in one case, 89 hours. Its lawyers have begun filing writs of habeas corpus to free inmates.

That's a temporary solution to a chronic problem that won't easily correct itself. Everyone in the criminal justice system must play a role in improving it. State officials should adequately staff the central booking facility and enhance its computer system for efficiency. Police should rely more on criminal citations and rethink the value of arresting so many for petty crimes; the time spent in processing these minor offenders can be better used. And prosecutors should work with police to reduce the rate of dropped charges.

The 24-hour rule is there for a reason; exceeding it shouldn't be business as usual.

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