City faces detention delays

Built for efficiency, Central Booking in Baltimore is overwhelmed, keeping police waiting and people detained longer than allowed, criminal justice officials say.

April 21, 2005|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Built a decade ago, the state-run Central Booking and Intake Center in downtown Baltimore was supposed to be the $56 million answer to gridlock in the city's criminal justice system, designed to speed an antiquated process of booking suspects.

Instead, law enforcement officials say, the facility has only made the initial stages of arrest and detention more cumbersome, frustrating police stuck for hours processing prisoners instead of patrolling, and keeping people arrested on petty crimes jailed for hours or even days longer than legally allowed.

Judges, prosecutors, police and defense lawyers say that Central Booking is broken, overwhelmed with arrestees, crowded with suspects awaiting trial and beset by inefficiencies that have complicated efforts to confront the city's crime rate.

"It's not a new problem," District Court Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey said in a recent interview. "Everybody is impacted by this in a very, very negative way."

A Circuit Court judge will preside today over a hearing intended to address some of the problems.

Evan Howard, an 18-year-old Polytechnic Institute graduate and Morgan State freshman, knows the frustrations all too well. He was arrested Friday after an officer accused him of refusing to obey orders to leave a street corner in West Baltimore.

Howard spent the next 56 hours detained at Central Booking, crammed with about 10 other people in a single-person cell, he said. He slept on the floor, using his shirt as a pillow. He was released Monday morning after prosecutors declined to charge him with a crime.

"They treat you like you're an animal in there," said Howard, who doesn't have a criminal record. "I wasn't even charged."

His is not an isolated case. The law requires that a suspect be released or see a court commissioner within 24 hours of arrest, but the Public Defender's Office says it has identified, in a recent four-day span, 122 people who were held longer than 24 hours - one for 89 hours.

Central Booking, opened in 1995, is a gray monolith that looms over the Jones Falls Expressway. The $56 million building, which put disparate law enforcement agencies under one roof, was constructed around a new system for seamlessly processing suspects. Leonard A. Sipes Jr., then the corrections spokesman, said at the time, "This will revolutionize the way we conduct business."

It was to be the keystone of the city's criminal justice system - where police turn over suspects to the state, prosecutors decide whether to press charges, suspects get defense attorneys, and judges and court commissioners decide whom to release.

Contention

Judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors and others meet regularly to discuss fixes that could make Central Booking run the way it was envisioned. However, contention festers because no one has found a solution.

Cooksey wrote a memo Monday to city judges, prosecutors, public defenders and police: "As usual, each agency is blaming another agency, and the finger pointing is getting in the way of finding a solution." She added that the problems "require immediate attention and correction."

In her memo, Cooksey blamed the failures on a wide array of agencies and said that police and booking officials sometimes duplicate work, such as criminal record checks, causing delays that last up to eight hours.

She said prosecutors do not decide quickly enough when to file charges and that police do not promptly file their statements of probable cause. Cooksey also criticized booking officials for not prioritizing suspects to get minor offenders through the system quickly. Retrieving property for released inmates takes three hours, she wrote.

Mayor Martin O'Malley and state corrections system Secretary Mary Ann Saar recently exchanged heated letters about Central Booking.

O'Malley wrote that police are "very discouraged by the lack of urgency and commitment that they see at [Central Booking] everyday." Saar wrote back, "The simple fact is that more arrestees are coming in than was ever planned."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city State's Attorney's Office, said the mayor and police have failed to filter minor offenders from the system.

Prosecutors decline to prosecute about 30 percent of people arrested, not including those picked up on warrants, concluding that either there is insufficient evidence to support an arrest or obtain a conviction, or that the time the suspect has served in jail is sufficient.

"We can't just arrest, arrest, arrest to address violent crime," Burns said. "Baltimore is in the midst of a public safety crisis."

Kristen Mahoney, chief of technical services for the city Police Department, described the system as an assembly line with constant undetected bottlenecks, such as one machine being used to take mug shots. Such problems force police to wait outside the booking center for as long as five hours until their arrestees taken in for processing.

"There are some tremendous systemic problems that need to be addressed," she said.

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