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Harford State’s Attorney’s Office weighs bathroom security, funding and office space with county council

It is a potentially dangerous situation, Harford County State’s Attorney Albert Peisinger said, when a prosecutor and defendant use the same bathroom after a tense trial or hearing. But it could happen in Harford County, underscoring the prosecutors’ office’s need for an updated space, he told the county council Monday.

While both the State’s Attorney’s and Sheriff’s Offices are being fully funded under County Executive Barry Glassman’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Under the proposed budget, the sheriff’s office would be allocated roughly $86.7 million and the State’s Attorney’s Office would receive about $6.6 million for their general funds. About 97% of the state’s attorney’s budget goes toward salaries, Peisinger said.

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During a budget work session with the Harford County Council that focused on public safety agencies on Monday, Peisinger stressed the need for an updated space to reduce crowding and address security concerns.

Peisinger said that one of those concerns is bathroom security. The State’s Attorney’s Office in the Circuit Courthouse does not have its own bathroom, forcing prosecutors to use the same bathrooms as potentially violent defendants they are working a case against or their family members.

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“If I’m trying a case and the defendant is a male, I could be standing next to the same gentleman I am prosecuting for a crime in the bathroom with no security or protection whatsoever,” Peisinger said. “Not everybody’s happy.”

Compounding the problem is the absence of any female deputies working courthouse security, Peisinger said, to accompany female defendants to the restroom. But the issue cuts across both sexes. The lack of female deputies securing the courthouse means that the women’s restroom is not checked as regularly as the men’s room. The male deputies do not have reason to go into the women’s restroom and, perhaps, discover that something may have happened.

Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said his office was looking into the issue and trying to hire female deputies for courthouse security, but the office is not seeing many female applicants. On top of that, courthouse security positions are temporary, often staffed with deputies approaching retirement, Gahler said, and they are paid at a flat rate.

The last female deputy working courthouse security retired last year, though some female deputies work in transport, and Gahler said he would check to see if they could conduct sweeps of the bathrooms and be seen around the courthouse.

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"This recruitment for temporary deputies is more challenging because it is a flat rate, benefits are more limited,” Gahler said. "We are just not getting the female applicants.

Peisinger said that, while the courthouse received an update in years past, the state’s attorney’s office has not, forcing lawyers to double-up on some office spaces and cram citizens into a conference room for grand jury proceedings every other week. That represents a problem in the aftermath of the coronavirus, he explained, for obvious reasons.

“Our grand jury room is designed for 10, and we put 25 people in it,” he said. “When you mention COVID and when we get back and how do we social distance, I can’t even consider that in that room because we are already over twice the capacity.”

Currently, courts are not holding trials, and no juries are meeting, Peisinger said, including the grand jury. Emergency hearings are taking place, though, and judges are standing by to rule on emergency orders like protective orders.

Currently spread across four buildings in Bel Air, Peisinger said he would want to consolidate his staff into two buildings to help with communication among prosecutors. It is an upcoming issue, he said, as he plans to post jobs for two more employees to help his office with complex investigations. He said he hopes to consolidate his misdemeanor and felony trial teams in one location sometime next year.

“There are maybe one or two locations that I’ve identified that I have mentioned that may work to several different people," he said. “That is going to be something we need to plan for in the future sooner than later.”

Because he is new to the process, Peisinger asked for the council’s guidance on whether the funds would come from the capital budget or his operating budget. As part of a response to the coronavirus pandemic, Glassman has paused several capital projects and cut the capital budget.

Peisinger also said that his office is in the process of transferring 12 child nonsupport enforcement positions to the state. Those jobs, paid by Harford County, cost approximately $544,000 last year, and putting them under the state’s remit could save the county about $556,000 annually, Peisinger said, increasing by about 3% each year.

The majority of other jurisdictions already have a similar arrangement. There will not be an interruption in services, Peisinger added.

The jobs will be transferred through legislation that has already passed the Senate and the House. It awaits Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, or it will become law on May 7, Peisinger said.

“Our services in the county will remain 110% the same,” he said.

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