Schmoke requests about $40 million from Md. for courts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A headline in The Sun yesterday said that Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had asked for about $40 million in state aid for courts. The money would also pay for prosecutors, police and other services.

The Sun regrets the error.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke came pleading for money in Annapolis yesterday but received a cool reception from state senators.

The mayor asked a Senate budget committee to help pick up the tab for the overburdened Baltimore Circuit Court system, prosecutors and police, among other things.

His almost $40 million request prompted one senator to ask the )) mayor if he still had control over the financially troubled city, which already has turned over its jail and community college to the state.

"Do you ever feel you're losing your city, that you don't run it anymore?" asked Republican Patrick J. Hogan, a new senator from Montgomery County.

"No, I'm not worried about my losing the city," Mr. Schmoke replied calmly. "I am worried about the quality of life in the city."

The mayor, who has been trying for years to unload the cost of court operations on the state, painted a dire picture of the city's cash-strapped Circuit Court and its effect on the crime rate in Baltimore.

Because of overburdened court schedules, old facilities and other problems, "there is tremendous pressure to plea-bargain cases," Mr. Schmoke told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

For example, he said, charges against car thieves now are more likely to be reduced to make way for higher priority cases against violent criminals. "People are coming in and then going right back out on the street," the former prosecutor said.

Echoing the mayor's concerns, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy described a criminal justice system "under extreme stress" in written remarks to the committee. "Add to this stress the inefficiency due to antiquated facilities and minimal automation, [and] we have an accident waiting to happen," Ms. Jessamy wrote.

But some senators were worried about the costs to state government, which is grappling with financial pressures of its own.

"When I added up all the costs, it's approximately $40 million," said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat. "Have you considered how [the state would] pay for that?"

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and key legislators say they want to avoid a big budget increase this year in response to the economy and taxpayers' desires. Mr. Glendening has proposed a $14.5 billion budget, up 4.5 percent over the current budget.

Bowing to fiscal and political realities, Mr. Schmoke acknowledged that the state could not pay for all those costs in one year and meet its budget goals. He said his top priority is the state takeover of almost $9 million in court costs.

Under two bills heard yesterday, both introduced by Baltimore Sen. John A. Pica Jr., the state would take over the costs of the prosecutor's office ($14 million) and Circuit Court. Other bills by the Democrat call for $5 million in state aid for the city police department and $10 million more in grants. The city budget is $2.2 billion.

Several influential legislators said the bills' chances of passing are slim. "We've heard these bills every year for 10 years, and they haven't passed yet," said Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade, a Republican from Anne Arundel County.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. characterized Mr. Pica's package as "overly ambitious." However, the Prince George's County Democrat predicted the city may get some financial relief for its court system through another bill with a better chance of passage.

A gubernatorial commission chaired by former Prince George's County Del. Timothy F. Maloney recommended the state assume financial responsibility for paying Circuit Court jurors, court interpreters and courthouse security statewide. The recommendations are in legislation introduced yesterday.

The commission asked the state to help automate Circuit Courts and establish court masters to help reduce caseloads.

CORRECTION
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