Taking up the cause of public access to government information, Baltimore officials filed a lawsuit yesterday against the state prison system, demanding an uncensored version of a consultant's report about problems at the Central Booking and Intake Center.
The city solicitor's office filed the unusual challenge in Circuit Court in Baltimore, citing the state's Public Information Act. The city argues that state prison officials, who operate the center, have "improperly and unlawfully withheld a public document by redacting so much of a report as to be tantamount to withholding it."
"We believe we're entitled to the entire report," said Ralph S. Tyler, the city solicitor. "We believe it's important for the public to have the benefit of the entire report."
Last week, the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services released the 10-page consultant's report - called "Analysis of the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center" - but edited out half of it, asserting that the document was used as part of the agency's "internal decision-making" process. The agency provided The Sun with a copy of the redacted report.
A substantial portion of the report, including the last paragraph of its one-page conclusion, is redacted. But in the report's conclusion, the consultant wrote that "no one was in charge" at the booking center when it came to ensuring that newly arrested suspects receive an initial court hearing within 24 hours. Allegations of excessive delays for people awaiting such hearings are currently the subject of a separate lawsuit filed in April by the public defender's office against state prison officials.
Karen V. Poe, a spokeswoman for the public safety department, said that attorneys for the state agency have not reviewed the city's lawsuit and could not comment on it.
In response to the public defender's lawsuit filed in April, Circuit Court Judge John M. Glynn issued a temporary restraining order that forces state officials to release people brought to the booking center who do not receive an initial court hearing within the required 24 hours. Some people had been held as long as 90 hours before they received their first court hearing, public defenders alleged in court documents.
Last month, the public defender's office added the District Court of Maryland as a defendant in its lawsuit because the court system's commissioners refuse to hold the hearings without all of the completed paperwork, court documents allege.
Since Glynn issued the restraining order, about 80 people who had been arrested but not processed within the 24-hour period have been released from Central Booking.
City officials complained about the release of suspects, arguing in court papers that the Police Department's public safety and crime-fighting efforts were being hindered by the forced release of dozens of suspects because of crowding and delays. The city joined the public defender's office in the lawsuit as a "friend of the court" during the summer.
The consultant's report - commissioned by the state agency in the summer - was prepared by Col. David M. Parrish, who heads the Hillsborough County jail system in Florida. State officials have not released to The Sun how much Parrish was paid or details of his contract.
The brewing fight over the redacted report comes after the disclosure last week that inspectors with the U.S. Department of Justice had returned for a review of booking center operations, as well as the adjacent city detention center, where men and women serving sentences or awaiting trial are housed.
The federal review is a follow-up to one in late 2000 and early 2001. After those visits, the Justice Department produced a highly critical report of the jail facilities' problems with medical care, sanitation, fire safety and juvenile services.
For archived coverage of the problems at Central Booking, go to baltimoresun.com/booking.