Booking lawsuit dropped

Progress in detainee processing leads public defender to end case

September 16, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,ok sun reporter

Public defender drops suit after fixes in Central Booking processing The public defender's office dropped its lawsuit against the state-run prison system yesterday, saying it was satisfied with progress in ending overcrowding at the Central Booking and Intake Center that had routinely kept detainees jailed longer than legally allowed.

Only four people in the past nine months have been kept at the processing center for more than 24 hours without seeing a lawyer or having a bail hearing, a marked improvement from 18 months ago when as many as 84 detainees a day were being held for too long without seeing a judge or court commissioner.

"It's become pretty clear that the problem has been solved," said Natalie Finegar, chief attorney for the public defender's office at Central Booking.

The crowding issues at downtown Central Booking, which processes about 100,000 detainees a year and is the first stop for people placed under arrest, fueled a contentious debate between city police and state officials over who was to blame: inefficiencies in running the booking center or police making too many arrests and clogging the system.

In an unusual move, the city petitioned to join the suit, and a Circuit Court judge allowed city officials to present their "concerns and recommendations" as a friend of the court. The city contended mismanagement by the state hampered its ability to fight crime as people arrested were often freed from unlawfully lengthy detentions.

Lawyers from the Maryland attorney general's office, who represent correctional officials, countered by saying the city, with its high number of questionable arrests, was part of the problem.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler could not be reached for comment.

Circuit Judge John M. Glynn dismissed the case, filed in April 2005, after a brief hearing yesterday. Glynn had issued a temporary restraining order last year that forced the state to release suspects who did not see a commissioner within 24 hours of their arrest. About 130 detainees were released because of the delays.

But now, the number of suspects held longer than a day without an initial court hearing has sharply decreased because of initiatives both sides say helped smooth the intake progress.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which operates Central Booking, said the agency has implemented about two dozen improvements to speed the booking procedure, including new fingerprint machines, additional scanners to track detainees, new computer hardware and another mug shot system.

The agency also redefined the job description of the assistant warden, whose lone responsibility now is the booking floor. Central Booking executives hired a lieutenant who concentrates on troubleshooting problems in the intake process as well.

If a suspect is kept beyond 15 hours without seeing the commissioner, who sets initial bail for people arrested, the detainee's case is placed inside a red file folder and given priority.

"Our hard work every day and the efforts that everybody has put forth have worked out," Vernarelli said.

The booking center on East Madison Street was built to handle 65,000 people a year and is supposed to be used only to process arrests. Defendants who cannot make bail set by a commissioner should be transferred to the adjacent detention center to await trial or further court hearings.

Page Croyder, chief of the Central Booking processing unit, which works with the state's attorney's office in deciding whether to file charges against suspects, said weekly meetings among the agencies housed in the building have helped clear up communication issues.

The warden chairs a meeting that includes representatives from the police, the state's attorney's office, pre-trial release and the court commissioner. If police charging documents, for example, are not getting through to the facility, the problem is discussed at the meeting.

"Some of the technical difficulties have been identified," Croyder.

Overcrowding problems became severe in August 2005, when the Baltimore Police Department's aggressive strategies led to a record number of arrests, sending 9,700 suspects to the facility, according to Vernarelli. Last month, Central Booking processed 8,930 suspects.

Fewer than 6,000 suspects were taken to Central Booking in February, the slowest month of the year.

There are, however, still hectic days. The number of detainees can easily top 300 in a 24-hour span, but officials at the public defender's office say there is a new confidence that the suspects now will be processed in a timely manner.

On extraordinarily high days, a suspect has to go through the system every four minutes.

"It's days where there have been an extremely high number of arrests," Finegar said. "But they're getting it. They have mechanisms in place to handle those type of days."

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