Source:  The Baltimore Sun Sunspot

             Judges must join city justice reform
                    Central booking: A district judge should be at Central Booking every
                    day to speed cases.

                    WITH the approval of 29 new positions for the prosecutor's office,
                    Baltimore City is finally getting serious about attacking its tremendous
                    homicide and violent crime rates.

                    Prosecutors will now be able to review all charges against criminals in
                    advance, which should eliminate many trivial cases. If those matters
                    no longer needlessly clog dockets, prosecutors have time to pay more
                    attention to cases that involve killers and other dangerous criminals.

                    One impediment to a rational use of public resources remains, though:
                    The judiciary continues to fight attempts to post a full-time judge at the
                    Central Booking and Intake Center.

                    A battle royale is shaping up.

                    Legislators, mayor step in

                    The General Assembly, concerned about the lack of progress in
                    rectifying Baltimore's criminal-justice crisis, last year froze some of the
                    judiciary's budget allocations. A substantial amount continues to be

                    Meanwhile, the city's new mayor, Martin O'Malley, has become the
                    long-needed resolute and impatient champion of quick reform. The
                    knives are out for him: After Mr. O'Malley, a lawyer, declared that "I
                    want to throw up" at the judges' smugness, there was talk about having
                    him disciplined by the bar association.

                    Perhaps the mayor might have phrased his remarks differently. But his
                    frustration is understandable.

                    There have been more than 300 murders in the city during every year
                    since 1990. Granted, changes are needed to improve the police
                    department; many, in fact, are under way.

                   Crime out of control

                    But police crackdowns on gun-toting criminals are likely to fail as long
                    as the rest of the criminal justice system is a revolving door that allows
                    killers and other chronic violent offenders to return to the streets
                    unpunished and free to commit more mayhem.

                    Circuit Court judges, who preside over felony cases, bear a heavy
                    responsibility for their leniency in granting probation to repeat
                    lawbreakers who know they can beat the system.

                    District Court judges share in this grave responsibility. All cases start
                    in their courtrooms. The mere fact that judges too often do not validate
                    a court commissioner's reading of defendants' rights results in endless
                    postponements and criminals getting off free.

                    After years of hand-wringing and empty talk, there is finally a chance
                    to start overhauling this mess. But nothing will happen unless all
                    stakeholders pull together.

                    Over the past year, the voluntary Criminal Justice Coordinating
                    Council has made substantial progress in addressing inter-agency
                    rivalry and surmounting abysmal bureaucratic barriers. Until Mr.
                    O'Malley became mayor less than three months ago, however, the
                    reform cause lacked a political champion.

                    In recent weeks, Mr. O'Malley, a former prosecutor, has won several
                    previously uncooperative agencies' support for dispensing swift justice
                    at the Central Booking courtroom. The state's attorney's office has
                    bought into it. So have the Public Defender's Office and corrections

                    The lone holdout is Chief District Judge Martha F. Rasin. However
                    much she may deny it, she is fighting Mr. O'Malley's efforts to bring a
                    full-time judge to this entry-point of the criminal justice process.

                    Following the philosophy of her predecessor, the late Robert F.
                    Sweeney, Ms. Rasin has battled previous streamlining efforts. Last
                    year, after much political pressure, she agreed to assign a judge to
                    Central Booking two days a week. But the judge's scope was strictly
                    limited, enabling Judge Rasin to claim the court doesn't have enough to


                    By contrast, Mr. O'Malley wants the Central Booking courtroom to
                    operate at least eight hours a day, seven days a week. He wants it to
                    "review all misdemeanor cases formally charged with the intent of
                    resolving as many cases as possible with appropriate pleas or other
                    dispositions at an initial hearing."

                    If given this broad mandate, the court in Central Booking would have
                    more than enough to do.

                    Many cities successfully use the common-sense approach of having
                    judges quickly dispose of routine cases before they clog court dockets.

                    The benefits are obvious: Costly, unnecessary pre-trial incarceration
                    could be avoided, freeing the system to deal with dangerous criminals.
                    Indeed, this was the fast and effective way in which Baltimore, too,
                    adjudicated routine misdemeanors until 1970, when restructuring
                    eliminated daily court sessions in all district police stations.

                    For more than a year, The Sun has advocated daily use of the Central
                    Booking courtroom. The tired, old excuses for not doing so have less
                    merit than ever now that all the other agencies are working together to
                    expedite justice.

                    Unfortunately, the disagreement between Ms. Rasin and Mr. O'Malley
                    has now become too strident and personalized. They are exchanging
                    letters but seem to be talking past one another. The situation was not
                    helped by Ms. Rasin's latest missive, which mischaracterized her
                    attempts to use the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council as a referee.

                    There are other examples of miscommunication as well. The mayor
                    says he never received a constructive-sounding Feb. 15 letter from
                    Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, another key player in
                    the current conflict.

                   Strident letters

                    A year ago, The Sun called on the governor, the mayor and
                    Maryland's chief judge to "lead a crusade against murders and guns"
                    and to see to it that the malfunctioning criminal justice system is

                    Despite an unabating wave of violence, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Gov.
                    Parris N. Glendening and Judge Bell failed to step up to that challenge.

                    As the killings and bloodshed continued, the General Assembly
                    assumed a leadership role. Without legislators' demands for reforms,
                    very little would have happened.

                    With Mr. O'Malley having made combating violence his top priority,
                    we renew our call for joint action.

                    Baltimore's criminal justice institutions -- from the courts to the
                    probation system -- are in a shambles. The jurisdictional borders and
                    funding sources are so confusing that needed reforms can be achieved
                    quickly only through the personal intervention of Governor Glendening,
                    Judge Bell and Mayor O'Malley, with legislators providing the needed
                    fiscal stimulus for action. Unless they unite to quell violence on
                    Baltimore's streets, the future of Maryland's biggest city is threatened.

                    The judiciary, protecting the tradition of separation of powers, abhors
                    this kind of intervention. However, should the judges fail to embrace
                    the triple causes of accountability, efficiency and criminal-justice
                    reform they will keep inviting intrusions by legislators.

                   Originally published on Feb 25 2000