Central Booking changes in works

State announces new warden, 15-point list of improvements

Crowded facility is steeped in problems

City Council holds public hearing as criticism of corrections grows

July 07, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

State corrections officials announced yesterday several improvements and a new warden at the troubled Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, as state and city agencies blamed one another for problems at the crowded facility during a City Council hearing.

With public scrutiny mounting, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees Central Booking, released a 15-point list of improvements planned or undertaken at the facility. The proposal includes new computers and fingerprint machines, additional supervisory staff and a new "time-prioritizing" procedure to better track detained suspects to ensure their initial court hearing occurs within 24 hours of arrest.

The department also announced the appointment of Mitchell J. Franks, a veteran correctional administrator, as the new warden for Central Booking. Franks, who last served as warden for the Division of Correction's Pre-Release System, replaces Susan M. Murphy, who retired two weeks ago.

The state-run facility has been enveloped in controversy in recent months. In April, public defenders filed a lawsuit alleging unconstitutional delays in the booking process, and a city circuit judge issued an order demanding the release of suspects held longer than 24 hours without an initial court hearing. Eighty-five people have been released so far.

In May, inmate Raymond K. Smoot, 51, was beaten to death by correctional officers during a melee. Eight officers were fired and the city state's attorney's office is reviewing the incident for possible criminal charges against officers. The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice also are reviewing Smoot's death for civil rights violations.

Though not having any authority over Central Booking's operation, the City Council's public safety committee called yesterday's hearing to offer a public airing of the issues facing the crowded facility.

But the main entity - the state's public safety department - did not testify at the hearing. In a letter to the council, state Secretary Mary Ann Saar said her agency is in the midst of defending itself in the public defender's lawsuit over alleged unconstitutional delays - a lawsuit which the city is attempting to join as a plaintiff. Saar said that appearing before the City Council to answer questions "is not appropriate."

Mark Vernarelli, a public safety department spokesman, said: "We are working as quickly and thoroughly as we can to correct what we can correct. We're not adversaries with anyone."

At yesterday's hearing, council members expressed concern about the court-ordered releases. Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said the different agencies need to work together and stop blaming one another.

"They need to check egos at the door. ... We know what the issues are," Harris said.

The tension surrounding Central Booking's legal problems escalated last week with the city's effort to join the lawsuit against state officials. For the past 10 years, the city, including the Baltimore Police Department, has worked with the state agency to iron out problems at the facility, where police now bring 100,000 people a year to be booked and processed after their arrests.

The relationship has hardly been smooth. Nevertheless, the city's request to join in the lawsuit against state corrections officials signifies a renewed, and public, adversarial footing. Yesterday, City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler, who represents the city in the legal proceedings, blasted public safety officials for mismanagement of the facility.

"There is strong evidence that this agency of state government has not been meeting its obligation" to operate the facility, Tyler told the council.

In a letter to the council, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy partly blamed the facility's problems on the sheer volume of arrested people brought to Central Booking by police, which has "simply overwhelmed" the resources. Her office provided statistics showing that prosecutors threw out 686 arrests in February, for such minor infractions as loitering, because they could not prove the cases presented to them by police.

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