The usual suspects

April 27, 2005

THE OVERCROWDING and inefficiencies overwhelming Baltimore's pretrial detention system predate the present crisis of suspects being held beyond the legal 24-hour limit. They occurred under the previous governor and they have persisted through this administration. But that's no excuse for the state's continued refrain of "we're working on it." Baltimore Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, who has ordered the release of 26 suspects unlawfully detained in the past week, shouldn't hesitate to find officials in contempt if progress isn't made on this intractable issue at the Central Booking and Intake Center.

The complexity of the problem is borne out by the number of people involved in trying to ensure that criminal suspects see a court commissioner within 24 hours, as required by law: About 30 people, representing all aspects of the criminal justice system, attended just one meeting last week. Processing suspects in a timely fashion requires cooperation from everyone involved.

When a police officer arrests someone but waits until the end of his shift to send the criminal charges to the booking facility, the impact is felt down the line. If the state-owned computer equipment used to transmit charges to the booking facility breaks down, the charging documents may never materialize for review by a prosecutor. When police arrest someone who carries no identification, it's an automatic trip to Central Booking, where a fingerprint check can identify a suspect and make sure he or she isn't wanted for murder.

There is no quick fix here, not when the number of people processed in a day averages 282, twice capacity. But there are ways to ease the crush, and they should be implemented:

Rely more on civil citations for crimes such as loitering unless a suspect can't produce identification. In December, prosecutors declined to prosecute 571 people charged criminally with loitering for lack of evidence; they all went through Central Booking. Last year, police issued only 1,463 civil citations, compared with 21,713 criminal citations.

Fast-track the booking of suspects charged with nonviolent offenses such as disorderly conduct, public drinking and minor theft.

Expedite state funding to update malfunctioning equipment.

Judge Glynn's order Monday to automatically release suspects held longer than 24 hours will put pressure on the system to respond. That must happen with prompt, workable solutions that will protect individual rights and safeguard the public.

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