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Mass drug sweeps causing a backlog


Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's program of mass drug "sweeps" has started to clog the rest of the city's criminal justice system, backlogging other felony cases and filling the Baltimore City Detention Center to overflowing.

A Baltimore City state's attorney's office internal memorandum, obtained by The Sun, says the arrests generated by the raids, as well as an unending parade of other defendants, eventually will back up the court system to the point where cases would be in danger of being lost to speedy-trial rules if action is not taken.

"I have compiled every indicator available to me, and have concluded that Commissioner Frazier's new tactics have precipitated an imminent crisis in the Circuit Court," wrote Alan C. Woods III of the office's research and statistics unit.

"This crisis is not temporary, but long-term, and any immediate steps taken will provide only short-term relief because of the increase in police arrests and changes in tactics," he stated.

Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, said yesterday that the situation was dire. Besides the higher case volume, one judge is leaving the bench this summer, and another may be appointed to a federal judgeship by fall. "There is a crisis," he said.

In the memo, Mr. Woods anticipates that the sweeps and other police activity will flood the system with 7,482 felony defendants by the end of this year -- about 1,600 more than in 1994. And that projection doesn't include the extra arrests that surely will be generated by the 30 officers Mr. Frazier is adding to his Violent Crimes Task Force and by the addition of units in police districts to carry out sweeps.

Mr. Frazier's raids began a little more than a year ago and so far have hit Southwest Baltimore and the Midway and Middle East neighborhoods.

Police Department spokesman Sam Ringgold said the commissioner does not plan to change the raid policy. "This has proved to be the most effective approach for us to get violent drug dealers off the street," he said. "Clearly, we still have a job to do. If there are ways that we can work with the state's attorney's office in terms of helping them with their process, we will, but drug raids will continue."

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Mr. Woods said yesterday that the memo was in no way intended to criticize what police are doing. In fact, Mrs. Jessamy praised the raids as highly effective.

"It's a better policy than just arresting people on the corners," she said. "We're going to find a way to do what we need to do."

Without a bigger staff and more courts in which to try cases, Mrs. Jessamy said she would have to figure out a creative way to keep up with the arrests.

According to Mr. Woods' analysis, drug defendants -- who made up 62 percent of felony defendants on the whole in the first quarter of this year -- are waiting an average of nearly seven months before their first trial date, if they do not plea-bargain their cases early.

Those who do not make bail spend that time in the Baltimore City Detention Center, which is so overcrowded that officials have had to move inmates into the new Central Booking and Intake Facility while it is under construction. Ironically, that new jail -- designed as a high-tech system for streamlining the processing of criminals -- might not be able to open in full in August as planned because jail officials will need to borrow beds for their overflow.

Starting in September, a fourth courtroom will be devoted solely to felony drug cases because of the load. Some of the cases will be on a "drug treatment" docket, an experiment that began in 1994 and is designed to keep qualifying defendants from commiting crimes by treating their addictions.

The change will reduce to four the number of courtrooms available to hear homicides and other felonies.

But Mr. Woods wrote that the move would put off the drug backlog only for the short term. Meanwhile, other felonies -- such as murder, armed robbery and other serious offenses -- will begin to back up. As of last month, more than 120 homicide cases were pending in Circuit Court.

If the trend continues, some fear, murder cases could be delayed, giving prosecutors more incentive to offer plea agreements and putting off justice for victims' families and defendants alike.

Mrs. Jessamy emphasized: "We aren't going to give anything away because we have a lot of cases in the system."

Some prosecutors wonder why a civil courtroom -- instead of a criminal courtroom -- could not be used for the extra drug court. But Judge Kaplan said that taking the extra drug court from civil cases also would cause problems.

Judge Ellen M. Heller, who is in charge of the city's civil docket, said that "we are barely holding on right now" with the help of several retired judges brought in to work on cases part time.

"If I take it from civil, it'll shut down civil," Judge Kaplan said.

Meanwhile, he said, the public defender's office would not have the people to staff a new drug court if lawyers there still had to handle the same number of criminal cases.

The judge said he hoped to talk with Mrs. Jessamy and Mr. Frazier about a more efficient way to process those arrested during sweeps.

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