No excuse

December 12, 2005

When inmates at the Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore were stacking up like planes at a busy airport, state corrections officials defended the agency. The state-run facility, overwhelmed by aggressive policing strategies in Baltimore, literally couldn't process inmates fast enough. But state Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar argued persuasively that no one entity could be blamed because "the entire booking procedure is dependent upon a cooperative effort." Her agency isn't being very cooperative now.

Ms. Saar refused last Tuesday to release the entirety of a consultant's report that her lawyers had offered up as evidence of the state's commitment to improve the central booking system. That is not the way to conduct the public's business.

State lawyers gave a Baltimore judge and the city solicitor's office the 10-page report with nearly half its content whited out. The reason for the redaction - that the material was part of officials' "internal decision-making" process - sounds like a convenient excuse to keep the report under wraps. It shouldn't stand.

The state is in court because public defenders sued the agency in late spring over the illegal detention of clients at the booking center. More than 40 detainees had been held for more than 24 hours without seeing a court commissioner, which is a violation of the law. At the time of the uproar, Ms. Saar rightly noted that the problems at the center were not solely the fault of the state. Baltimore police were arresting thousands of people a month on quality-of-life crimes, a strategy that clears the streets but clogs the system. Central booking suffered from outdated equipment and technology snafus that prolonged the processing of detainees. And city prosecutors ended up dismissing about a third of these minor cases for lack of evidence, which raised questions about the efficacy of city policing strategies.

After the spring overcrowding troubles, the public safety department hired a Florida jail official to review the booking center operations. Col. David M. Parrish visited the facility in September and delivered his report to state officials Oct. 21.

Both the O'Malley administration and The Sun sought a copy of the report through the state public information law. That's when the heavily edited version was released. And that's unacceptable.

In trying to address the problems at Central Booking, state public safety officials took a good first step by hiring the consultant. Releasing the consultant's findings and recommendations is the next step.

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