Source:  Baltimore Sun Sunspot

                    Panel to vote on Baltimore court reform
                    plan this week
                    Major differences remain among group's members

                    By Caitlin Francke
                    Sun Staff

                    After weeks of wrangling between the mayor and the judiciary over
                    reform of Baltimore's courts, a plan to revamp the justice system may
                    emerge this week.

                    A group studying the issue hopes to meet Mayor Martin O'Malley's
                    goal of handling many minor cases within 24 hours of arrest. If the
                    plan being developed by the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating
                    Council gains the consensus of involved parties, from judges to jail
                    officers, at a meeting Wednesday, it would be a major breakthrough
                    in a turbulent battle over the future of the city courts.

                    At the end of last week, however, major differences remained about
                    how the justice system could be improved, despite the mayor's
                    assertion that it was stick-figure simple.

                    While O'Malley believes that speedier justice for minor cases will
                    allow more time to prosecute violent criminals, judges remain
                    concerned about a proposal that could leave them less than two
                    minutes on average to adjudicate each case in a courtroom at the jail.
                    Also, the debate involves more parties than O'Malley and the judges.

                    "I just want to move beyond any simplistic notion that this is not a
                    complicated problem. The impression that this is something that one
                    person can achieve and one person is obstructing is not the case,"
                    said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and O'Malley
                    supporter who heads a powerful budget committee. "This doesn't
                    succeed by one person's energy. This succeeds by all of the
                    stakeholders agreeing to move this project forward."

                    O'Malley and state judges, principally Chief Judge of the District
                    Court Martha F. Rasin, have been locked in a vitriolic debate for
                    weeks about O'Malley's desire to turn the courtroom at the Central
                    Booking and Intake Center into a clearinghouse for minor cases.

                    The debate has consumed the General Assembly, City Hall and the
                    court system. Legislators, tired of the bickering and eager for a
                    resolution, last week directed the matter to the coordinating council,
                    the committee steering reform of the city's courts.

                    Judges and other officials formed the council last year after murder
                    and armed robbery suspects were set free because their trials didn't
                    occur within 180 days, as the law requires. The council consists of
                    members of all city justice agencies, from prosecutors to probation
                    agents. It will meet Wednesday in Courthouse East on Calvert

                    John H. Lewin Jr., chairman of the council, said the group has been
                    working for a year on how to better use the courtroom in the jail,
                    currently used part-time. Lewin said the council plan will aim to meet
                    O'Malley's goal of ridding the system of many cases within 24 hours
                    of arrest. Exactly how many remains unclear, he said.

                    O'Malley, who made justice issues the cornerstone of his mayoral
                    campaign last year, wants half of the approximately 250 daily arrests
                    in the city to be adjudicated within 24 hours. The former prosecutor
                    and criminal defense attorney says minor cases clog the justice
                    system, depriving the courts and prosecutors of vital time to handle
                    violent offenders.

                    His theory is based on the fact that the majority of minor cases are
                    eventually dropped but consume man-hours and court time in the

                    If cases were handled more rapidly, the mayor says, the city would
                    save millions of dollars in overtime paid to police who go to court
                    repeatedly to testify, only to see many of the cases dropped.

                    "If [case dispositions] happened up front, it would create a lot more
                    room in our courtrooms for prosecutors to seek minimum mandatory
                    sentences on gun cases," O'Malley said. "And it will get us much
                    further down the road to those 900 serious prosecutions of violent
                    gun offenders that are going make this city a safer place and save a
                    heck of a lot of lives."

                    Under his plan, all people arrested would first go to the courtroom,
                    where many would be offered a plea bargain. If they chose to accept
                    it, they could be sentenced or released that day. If not, they would
                    await trial.

                    But judges and other members of city justice agencies, principally
                    those who run the city jail, say such an approach poses serious

                    Moving that many inmates to and from the courtroom would be "a
                    nightmare," one jail official said.

                    Public safety officials told state legislators last week that it would cost
                    the state a minimum of $1.3 million a year for 34 extra officers and
                    additional funds to revamp the courtroom area to accommodate the
                    mayor's plan.

                    The 20-by-40-foot courtroom in the jail can seat about 25 inmates at
                    a time and is located in a nonsecure area -- at the other end of the
                    jail from where the inmates are housed.

                    A holding cell would have to be constructed where inmate visits now
                    take place, with a door leading to the courtroom built into what is
                    now a concrete wall.

                    The jail's elevators can hold about 15 inmates at a time. That means
                    jail officers would have to constantly transport inmates throughout the
                    jail in small groups, through a series of locked security doors.

                    They foresee bringing the inmates in two main shifts -- 125
                    defendants for the morning docket and 125 for the afternoon.

                    If a judge works only eight hours a day, each case would have to be
                    handled in about two minutes.

                    Jail officials say it would be next to impossible to handle all those
                    cases without building another courtroom and having another judge
                    preside there. If not, defendants would likely wait two days -- not 24
                    hours -- to see a judge.

                    In addition, there would be little or no public access to the
                    courtroom. People would have to watch the proceedings on
                    television from one of 48 plastic seats at the jail's entrance.

                    Rasin, who oversees the judges who would preside in the jail, has
                    additional concerns. She worries that rushing cases through the
                    system might trample constitutional rights.

                    Some might feel coerced to plead guilty just so they can get out, she

                    "When you're a judge, you are seeing the person in front of you who
                    is going to have a criminal record who may not have even sobered
                    up yet," Rasin said.

                    Though she is willing to place a judge at the jail five days a week,
                    Rasin indicated she first wants to ensure that the plan is a sound one.
                    She is worried that the number of cases could lead to "backlog and
                    overcrowding in the courts like this city has never seen."

                    Under state law, defendants must see a judicial officer within 24

                    "I do not want to participate in a plan that has very little hope of
                    achieving its goal or which violates the rights of citizens," Rasin said.

                    Despite such concerns by Rasin and jail officials, O'Malley claimed
                    victory in the court reform war Wednesday.

                    When legislators released $9 million they had withheld for a year
                    from city justice agencies to force change in the court system, the
                    mayor announced that he had succeeded in getting Rasin to agree to
                    staff the courtroom five days a week.

                    "This is commendable and significant progress toward creating a
                    higher standard of justice in Baltimore City," O'Malley said in a news

                    But Rasin saw it differently. She said she had always been willing to
                    place a judge in the jail five days a week but had not yet agreed to

                    Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Robert M. Bell informed
                    Rawlings of Rasin's position on Thursday: "The only specific
                    agreement that the judiciary has made was to accept legislative
                    budget language which would take the mayor's plan to the interested

                    --- END OF STORY --- END OF LEG 4

                    Originally published on Mar 5 2000