Baltimore criminal justice leaders ponder way forward after coordinating council's funding slashed

Baltimore judges wondered Wednesday how a slate of problem-solving initiatives they lead could continue after Gov. Larry Hogan slashed funding for the group in a dispute over how to tackle violent crime.

At what may have been the final meeting of the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said her office was willing to take the lead and continue the group’s efforts.

That brought a rebuke from Circuit Judge Charles J. Peters, who said judges couldn’t be seen as working for the mayor.

“We can never, ever be seen as your ally or an ally of law enforcement,” Peters said.

He said the bench’s role was the “fair and efficient administration of justice,” not reducing street violence.

The Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council was formed 18 years ago. It hosted a monthly lunch meeting of top leaders from across the criminal justice system, but officials said the behind-the-scenes work addressed unglamorous but crucial problems. Judges led subcommittees that met to brainstorm how to improve different systems.

Circuit Court Judge Shannon Avery, who chaired a committee that worked to ensure efficient transportation of inmates to court, compared its work to an air traffic controller who goes unappreciated “until two planes crash in the air.”

“You won’t understand the consequences until something regrettable happens,” Avery said.

Last month, Hogan announced he was yanking funding from the group, saying that members were not taking violent crime seriously. Baltimore is grappling with a persistently high homicide rate — 278 people have been killed this year. Violent crime is up 15 percent over the previous year.

The Republican governor said he would redirect the $219,000 used to fund the panel to Pugh’s administration.

The money paid mostly for the salaries of the coordinating council’s two employees — director Kimberly Barranco, who held the position for 10 years, and a project coordinator.

Peters said Barranco had been “tireless” in helping to improve the criminal justice system and said she had “positively impacted the lives of everyone in Baltimore City.” Officials said she was crucial in bringing leaders together and making sure their work stayed on track.

Peters got mostly blank stares when he asked members of coordinating council how they wanted to proceed.

A representative from Hogan’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention said nothing during the meeting. But Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said in an email that “the leadership of this council has repeatedly refused to make violent crime their top priority and thus its makes absolutely zero sense to continue spending hundreds of thousands of tax payers dollars annually to support it.”

Pugh, who twice said she was “seeing many of you [on the coordinating council] for the first time,” said she was focused on reducing violence in Baltimore and would “work with those interested in doing that.”

She pointed to her newly appointed head of the Office on Criminal Justice, Andrew Vetter, and said he was well-positioned to lead such efforts.

Judges said Pugh was overlooking the council’s role in making the criminal justice system work more efficiently, and said they wouldn’t be able to participate in efforts touted as reducing violence.

“We are all concerned about the level of violence,” said District Court Judge Halee Weinstein. But she said, “We serve two separate functions.”

Weinstein stood up from her seat to outline some of the coordinating council’s work: ensuring detainees at Central Booking weren’t released before being served with open warrants; ensuring detainees were more quickly brought before a District Court commissioner; and making sure inmates charged with crimes while incarcerated were properly booked.

Dorothy Lennig, legal clinic director at the House of Ruth, said the involvement of judges had been key to successful efforts to improve services around domestic violence.

District Judge James Green said judges would continue to be involved, “as best we can.”

With few stakeholders willing to engage, the meeting adjourned with the passage of a vague motion to continue discussing how to keep the council’s work going. What form that will take was unclear.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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