Source:  Baltimore Sun Sunspot

                    Jail officials back mayor's court plan

                    Overhaul of system could cost state millions, they say; 'Funds
                    commitment exist'; Speedy handling of lesser offenses sought by

                    By Caitlin Francke and Thomas W. Waldron
                    Sun Staff

                    In Annapolis Today's highlights:

                    Senate meets 10 a.m. Senate chamber.

                    House of Delegates meets 10 a.m. House chamber.

                    House Ways and Means Committee hearing on governor's proposal
                    for state-supported teacher pay raises, 2 p.m. House office building,
                    Room 110.

                    Public safety officials told legislators in Annapolis yesterday that they
                    support Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan to reform the Baltimore court
                    system but said it could cost the state millions of dollars.

                    The officials, who run the Baltimore jail, said they would need at least
                    $1.3 million annually to pay for 34 new employees and additional
                    money to remodel the courtroom area to comply with the mayor's

                    The mayor has called for an overhaul of the court system so that half
                    of criminal cases can be disposed of within 24 hours of arrest, which
                    would require a judge in the jail to handle about 250 defendants each

                    "There are serious issues that must be confronted and resolved," said
                    LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of pretrial services and
                    detention. "If we were to process over 200 cases a day at 10
                    minutes apiece, that's 42.5 hours" a day.

                    "You would virtually need two courtrooms," he said.

                    Despite such concerns, O'Malley said yesterday that he will push to
                    have the courtroom at the city jail turned into a clearinghouse for
                    minor cases by April 10.

                    "The funds and commitment exist on both a state and local level,"
                    O'Malley said in a statement released last night.

                    O'Malley's promise of swift action came as legislative leaders
                    released $9 million that had been withheld from criminal justice
                    agencies to force reform of the city's court system.

                    The mayor urged lawmakers last month to hold on to the funds until
                    all of the agencies involved had agreed on a reform plan.

                    The heads of the General Assembly's two budget committees said
                    they had seen enough progress to release the money.

                    "Given these facts and the integrity of all the people working to solve
                    this problem, it serves no useful purpose to continue to withhold the
                    remaining $8.9 million," said a letter signed by Sen. Barbara A.
                    Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings and sent to Chief

                    Judge Robert M. Bell.

                    Their decision was a clear sign that legislators had tired of the
                    mayor's sharp exchanges with state judges over court reform.

                    "We're trying to move this process forward and get it off the track
                    where it's leading now," Rawlings said.

                    Hoffman and Rawlings said all parties, including Martha F. Rasin,
                    chief judge of the District Court, had agreed "conceptually" to place
                    a judge in the city jail courtroom five days a week. A judge now sits
                    there parts of four days, mostly for bail reviews.

                    The cost projections by public safety officials were based on the
                    mayor's initial call for a seven-day-a-week court.

                    The legislators acknowledged that key operational details of
                    O'Malley's reform plan had not been resolved.

                    "We are confident that the judiciary, the mayor and the other
                    stakeholders can reach agreement on the details soon," wrote
                    Hoffman and Rawlings, both Baltimore Democrats.

                    O'Malley sounded more conciliatory yesterday than he had in recent

                    "What we have to do now is shut our mouths and roll up our sleeves"
                    to reform the criminal justice system, the mayor said.

                    Rasin, the target of many of O'Malley's criticisms, declined to discuss
                    the reported conceptual agreement.

                    After weeks of wrangling with O'Malley and legislative leaders, Bell
                    said he was happy about the release of the money and declined to
                    comment further.

                    O'Malley wants to rid the system of minor cases before they clog
                    court dockets so that prosecutors can focus on the most serious
                    violent criminals.

                    The cases of about 60 percent of those jailed and awaiting trial are
                    dropped or placed in the inactive file by prosecutors. O'Malley has
                    said that should happen early in the process.

                    The main concern is that the jail's courtroom was not built to handle a
                    large number of cases. The courtroom is in a nonsecure area of the

                    That means that dozens of people would have to be added to the
                    security staff to escort inmates between the jail and the courtroom. In
                    addition, Flanagan said he would have to build a holding cell outside
                    the courtroom for offenders waiting to see a judge.

                    Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

                    Originally published on Mar 2 2000