The state's vaunted new Central Booking Facility opened earlier than planned yesterday for a scaled-down, low-tech purpose: easing an overcrowding crisis at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
A group of 112 women prisoners was escorted from the 19th century Detention Center, where they had been sleeping on temporary plastic beds on a crowded gymnasium floor, into an air-conditioned, relatively spacious dormitory at the adjoining center. Initially, the center wasn't expected to receive inmates until later this summer. The $54 million building at East Madison Street and the Fallsway, parts of which are still under construction, is the only valve available for an overcrowding problem that has drawn the ire of a federal judge.
Last month, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz stopped short of finding jail officials in contempt of violating a 1993 consent decree, which sets population limits at the old Detention Center. The judge ordered them to produce reports throughout the summer to document efforts to reduce the overcrowding.
Jail officials say that skyrocketing arrests have caused them to routinely exceed the limits. Even with yesterday's transfer, they were nearly 500 people over the limit.
Some worry that Central Booking's current role as an overflow station will become permanent. LaMont W. Flanagan, who oversees the old and new jails as commissioner of pretrial detention and services, said yesterday that the booking phase, which was to begin in August, may begin later than expected so that officials can use the 811 beds to relieve crowding. More than 200 male prisoners are to be moved from the jail to Central Booking by mid-July.
Prison officials had planned to begin phasing out city police districts by August, and eventually book all new arrestees into the new center through a $10 million high-technology system, using a computerized data base, electronic fingerprinting and bail reviews conducted by a video link between the center and courthouses. The goal is to free police officers from hours spent on paperwork required to process prisoners. Eventually, police lockups won't be necessary.
All of that may be on hold.
"Right now, the opening date is under review," Mr. Flanagan said. "We may need the beds."
Frank M. Dunbaugh, the lawyer who represents prisoners in the overcrowding lawsuit that prompted the population limits at the old detention center, was not surprised at the delay.
"I've never been persuaded Central Booking was going to add beds to the general population," he said.
Mr. Dunbaugh points to these figures: More than 70,000 people are expected to be arrested in Baltimore in the coming year. Of those, 25,000 could be expected not to make bail and end up at the detention center, he said. But all of the 70,000 will have to be booked at the new center, even if they don't ultimately stay there long.
Add to that a budget battle that threatens to leave the new building without a legal staff to dispose of shaky cases before they clog the system.
The original concept for the center included a team of prosecutors and public defenders to review cases as they came in the door, so that charges could be reduced or dropped when appropriate.
That would keep taxpayers from having to foot the daily jail bill for defendants who could not make bail and free people who had been arrested but who would not ultimately be convicted.