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News Opinion Editorial

Lost in jail [Editorial]

In Maryland, those arrested on the street or after police have obtained a warrant must be given a court hearing within 24 hours of being taken into custody. At that initial hearing they have a chance to learn the charges against them and to request their release pending trial.

But some suspects recently have ended up waiting much longer than 24 hours before getting their first day in court, a violation of their civil rights that potentially puts the city in legal jeopardy if they later challenge their detention.

As The Sun's Ian Duncan has reported, most people who are detained by police in the city are presented before a commissioner at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake facility or a district court judge within a day of their arrest. But under certain circumstances the state's attorney's office can obtain an indictment directly from a circuit court grand jury, bypassing the district courts. Since the circuit courts generally handle more serious offenses, the procedure is often used in high-profile cases involving multiple defendants suspected of involvement in gang- and drug-related crimes. The Baltimore U.S. Attorney's office has frequently used a similar method, for example last year when it took down the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang at the Baltimore City jail.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein has adopted the tactic to go after violent drug gangs at the local level. He's obtained dozens of circuit court indictments, which are generally sealed until an arrest is made, that allow for the detention of suspected drug dealers and gang members and bring them before judges of the higher court without going through an initial hearing before a bail commissioner or district court judge. Mr. Bernstein's office recently announced two large cases that used the method to break up suspected drug organizations in the city's Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Belvedere neighborhoods.

The problem is that once the suspects are in custody, they still have a right to an initial hearing within 24 hours, something that prosecutors have not been able to provide consistently. The reasons for the delays include paperwork mix-ups, failure to notify prosecutors and corrections officials that a suspect is in custody, logistical problems and other errors. But the result is that suspects (who have been convicted of nothing) can languish behind bars for days, weeks or even months before getting initial hearing and the opportunity to request bail. Officials at the Baltimore City public defender's office say suspects can get "lost" in the system, leaving families to wonder what they've been charged with and when or if they will be released.

There's no evidence that city prosecutors are deliberately abusing the charging process to keep suspects in jail or deprive them of legal representation when their cases finally do get heard, and a spokesman for Mr. Bernstein's office said recently that it is working with other stakeholders to find a solution. The glitches in the system seem more a matter of lax procedures and personnel inadequately trained in a new way of handling cases than a malicious conspiracy to deny suspects their rights.

Mr. Bernstein has brought in a number of new prosecutors who recognize the advantages of the federal model for taking down major criminal organizations, but apparently his department has yet to fully master the meticulous advance planning required to make such prosecutions work within the law. Other jurisdictions have managed avoid the problem of lengthy delays for suspects by building safeguards into their procedures to make sure everyone understands that when suspects are taken into custody they're entitled to a hearing that same day whenever possible. Baltimore should look to them as an example of what works and what doesn't.

The circuit court indictments employed by Mr. Bernstein's office to target major drug cases and violent gangs can be a powerful tool for law enforcement, and we certainly hope they will be successful in reducing crime. But the tactic needs to be used with care. The rules are clear about what should happen when suspects are arrested, and Mr. Bernstein must make it his business to ensure that his office is diligent in making sure it complies with what the law requires.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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