A Baltimore Circuit Court judge ordered the release yesterday of five suspects caught in gridlock at the state-run detention center, and defense attorneys requested that the judge force more sweeping changes at the troubled facility.
At the hearing, lawyers with the Office of the Public Defender urged Judge John M. Glynn to stipulate that the state release any detainee, now or in the future, held longer than the law allows. He did not immediately rule.
Maryland law requires that a suspect either be freed or see a court commissioner within 24 hours of arrest. Yesterday, public defenders said they had identified 88 suspects being held more than 24 hours - many on flimsy or minor charges that they said would not be prosecuted by the state's attorney's office.
Shortly after the hearing, the back-and-forth intensified between city and state over blame.
The state corrections secretary issued a statement saying it was irresponsible to fault her agency for problems at the Central Booking and Intake Center. Through a spokesman, Mayor Martin O'Malley responded that the state is hindering crime-fighting efforts and that, given funding, he would take over the downtown center.
The struggle will continue into next week, when Glynn is to hold a hearing Monday on the request by the Office of the Public Defender. Another hearing might be held today to determine whether more suspects should be set free.
Glynn expressed frustration yesterday that he could not solve a long, lingering problem with the slap of a gavel.
"I can't really tolerate the situation the way it is," Glynn said. "[But] I don't really have the power to instantaneously solve this. Various politicians do, but I'm not one of them. It's a political problem."
Yesterday's hearing arose out of charges from prosecutors, defense lawyers, police, corrections officials and judges that the process used to book prisoners at Central Booking has broken down. Suspects arrested in the city are taken to the facility, where prosecutors decide whether to press charges, suspects get defense attorneys and judges and court commissioners decide who to release.
Opened in 1995, it was intended to create an efficient clearinghouse for arrestees, where disparate law enforcement agencies would collaborate. Filters were added to immediately sift out minor offenders and those who wouldn't be prosecuted. But suspects are routinely being held too long.
Four of the five suspects ordered released yesterday were being detained after drug-related arrests. The other had been jailed 40 hours on a loitering charge, public defenders said. Police could re-arrest the suspects on the same charges, public defenders said.
In seeking a resolution, Glynn questioned Assistant Attorney General Glenn Marrow, who represented corrections officials.
"What exactly is the problem?" Glynn asked. He later added, "It's hard to fashion a solution if one doesn't know the problem."
Marrow said: "There are several partners in this process who have come up short. They have all come up short."
In recent years and months, several entities have cast blame on each other. Corrections officials say the facility wasn't built to handle the vast number of people being arrested by the city police. Prosecutors say police are making unneeded arrests that clog the system. Police say they are arresting fewer people than last year, but that the inefficient assembly-line process often leaves them waiting with suspects for hours outside Central Booking. A judge wrote that many share in the blame.
Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, issued a statement yesterday stating, "It is totally wrong and irresponsible to blame the staff or leadership at Central Booking when the entire booking procedure is dependent upon a cooperative effort. If the mayor is blaming this department, he is totally wrong."
O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese responded, "We are doing everything in our power to make our city safer, but the efforts of our officers, who are on the streets every day, are being hindered by the problems at this state-run facility."
Abbruzzese said that with the proper funding, city government would run the facility.
Nearly 15 years ago, at the city's request, the state took over the city jail. At the time, city officials said the costs were crushing. Also, the jail was under federal court order to reduce crowding; several people had languished in jail for weeks or months without being charged.
During yesterday's hearing, Natalie Finegar, the chief attorney at Central Booking for the public defender, urged Glynn to act quickly. She said suspects in the newer, state-run facility were suffering "cruel and unusual punishments."
Glynn said, "They may be cruel, but for around here, they're not unusual."