Source:  Baltimore Sun Sunspot

                    July eyed for court reforms
                    Panel unveils plan to turn city jail into clearinghouse; `Making great
                    progress'; Group to seek state funds for implementation


                    By Caitlin Francke
                    Sun Staff

                    A speedier criminal justice system could be in effect in Baltimore by
                    July 1 under a plan announced yesterday that ends -- at least for now
                    -- a vitriolic debate between the mayor and state judiciary.

                    But more hurdles remain before the courtroom at the city jail is
                    turned into a clearinghouse for minor cases, as the mayor wishes.
                    The estimated cost of putting the plan in place is about $10 million,
                    much of which will likely have to come from state coffers. Officials
                    aim for the courtroom to be operational by July 1.

                    "Now we'll have to get it funded," said John H. Lewin Jr., chairman
                    of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a group composed of
                    all criminal justice agencies, from judges to jail officials. "I'm hoping
                    that the governor will press for full payment of that budget and the
                    legislature will comply."

                    Council members had been working for the past year on a plan to
                    better use the jail courtroom. Mayor Martin O'Malley's demands for
                    fast action accelerated the council's work.

                    Lewin publicly outlined the plan yesterday at the council meeting
                    attended by about 20 representatives of criminal justice agencies as
                    well as O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Secretary
                    of Public Safety and Correctional Services Stuart O. Simms, the top
                    judges of the city's circuit and district courts and State Public
                    Defender Stephen E. Harris.

                    Lewin said he plans to present the plan to legislators this week. But,
                    he said, the public defender's office, the jail, the judiciary and other
                    agencies affected will have to push to get the money they need in
                    their budgets. "It'll be up to them to convince the state legislature that
                    they are entitled to every dollar," he said.

                    The plan represents a breakthrough in the fiery battle over the future
                    of the city courts. O'Malley and Chief District Judge Martha F. Rasin
                    both appeared to approve the plan after weeks of fighting.

                    "I think we are making great progress," O'Malley said at the
                    coordinating council's meeting in Courthouse East on Calvert Street,
                    where the plan was unveiled. "Thanks for all your good work."

                    Rasin sounded a similar note of cooperation.

                    "I am satisfied that citizens' rights will not be jeopardized and that the
                    plan is realistic," Rasin wrote in a prepared statement.

                    Substantial differences

                    The plan, while meeting O'Malley's goal of eliminating minor cases
                    swiftly, differs substantially from his original proposal.

                    O'Malley's proposal called for 50 percent of the 250 daily arrests to
                    be adjudicated within 24 hours of arrest. It is not clear under this
                    plan how many cases will be handled.

                    To start, prosecutors are expected to bring about 50 or 75 cases to
                    the courtroom every day. A judge will preside over cases five days a
                    week, eight hours a day. The courtroom is now used part time.

                    If the program, which Rasin is calling a "pilot," is successful, Lewin
                    and others said it could be expanded.

                    The process

                    Here's how it will work: Prosecutors will review all arrests made
                    between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m., the peak hours, to determine which
                    cases can be expedited. Those will include drug possession,
                    prostitution, shoplifting and disorderly conduct.

                    The defendants held in jail on such cases will be offered a plea
                    bargain in the morning. If they accept it, they can be sentenced or
                    released that day. If not, they will await a trial.

                    The defendants who are released on bail will be scheduled for a
                    hearing the next afternoon in Eastside District Court on North
                    Avenue. They, too, will be offered a plea bargain, which they can
                    accept or reject.

                    Adding staff

                    To put the plan in place, the jail will need $2.2 million to hire
                    additional security staff to transport the inmates to and from the
                    20-by-40-foot courtroom because it is in an unsecure part of the

                    It will also need to revamp the courtroom area to build a holding cell
                    and create room for prosecutors and public defenders to meet with

                    The public defender's office estimates that it will need $3.3 million for
                    more staff because they will be working around the clock.

                    The judiciary will need about $1 million to hire more court
                    commissioners, who set bail for defendants and will prepare the case

                    Prosecutors have received $1.3 million from O'Malley to staff the
                    courtroom and take over the charging function from police.

                    Yesterday, Lewin said the Police Department will have to hire five
                    more chemists to analyze suspected drugs.

                    O'Malley said he will "explore" the idea of hiring additional chemists.

                    Originally published on Mar 9 2000