State of justice: 'Really frightening' Maryland's chief judge renews call for takeover of state's circuit courts.


Saying the state of justice in Baltimore is "frightening," Maryland's chief judge has renewed his call for a state takeover of the circuit courts.

"I've talked about this until I'm blue in the face," Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Court of Appeals said in an interview this week. "There's a reluctance to do anything more than they have been doing. [Legislators] have more demanding political concerns. Take welfare, for example. Sewage. Sanitation. Stop signs."

"But we have an absolute crisis situation in the courts," he added. "We have been screaming about it."

Murphy's remarks came in response to The Evening Sun's recent "Make-A-Deal Justice" series, which showed how an avalanche of drug cases has forced Baltimore Circuit Court to resort to wholesale plea bargaining, including the granting of suspended sentences with probation to many felony defendants.

"It's frightening," Murphy said. "It's really frightening."

In his annual State of the Judiciary speech before the General Assembly in January, Murphy called for a state takeover of the courts in jurisdictions such as Baltimore, where inadequate local funding hampers the administration of justice.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the city bar association advocate a state takeover of city Circuit Court. Schmoke also wants the state to take over the city state's attorney's office.

"They say things to me like,'Do you propose that we take people off kidney dialysis machines?' " Murphy said. "There's a huge number of competing demands on the public treasury."

The legislature, however, did approve a state takeover of the City Jail. The jail's operating costs are $43 million a year and rising. Since 1985, annual operating costs for the jail more than doubled, from $18.5 million to $39.2 million.

Schmoke sees the jail takeover as a "hopeful sign," but he says he will continue to push for state support of the city Circuit Court. "The system needs an infusion of [state] resources to do the job better," said Schmoke, a former city state's attorney and federal prosecutor. "It's unlikely we will be able to increase funds to the court in the next couple of years."

The city Circuit Court will be required to hold to its fiscal 1991 funding level. Of the Circuit Court's $8.2 million budget, $7.3 million comes from the city. The remainder is provided by state and federal funds.

Maryland's judicial branch of government consumes only a tiny fraction of the overall state budget, about one penny of each dollar, according to budget figures for fiscal 1990. In contrast, public education accounts for about 25 cents of each dollar of state spending.

The running of the circuit courts by the state would not be a radical departure because the state already provides most of the funding for the judicial branch.

Murphy said the circuit courts have varying funding levels, are the only courts in the state that are not unified and are not totally funded by the state.

The city state's attorney's budget -- $10.17 million -- also was not increased for fiscal 1992.

Last December, a city bar association committee concluded that criminal justice system in the city was being crippled by under-financing and a flood of drug cases and

Committee chairman George L. Russell Jr., a former city judge, lobbied the governor for a state takeover of the Circuit Court, jail and state's attorney's office.

"Up to this point we've only been able to place Band-Aids on the problems," said Russell. "We are very grateful for the government's response with the City Jail. We're well on our way, but it's going to be a difficult road."

Sen. William H. Amoss, D-Harford, who chairs a budget subcommittee on judicial issues, is not enthusiastic about a state takeover of the city Circuit Court and state's attorney's office.

"I don't like to see the state of Maryland take over everything," he says. "You can't say to all the rest of the counties that you have to support your Circuit Court system and Baltimore city doesn't. It's very unfair to the other counties.

"The state," he adds, "cannot be a cure-all to everything. That's for sure."

Meanwhile, the city Circuit Court will just have get by with what it has.

"I don't think we're in imminent danger of collapse," says Murphy. "We're in a serious crisis. We struggle with this everyday. But we have not given up."

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