Jail crowding threatens drug sweeps


The crowded jails and backlogged court docket in Baltimore are threatening to do what criminals could not: Put an end to Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's drug sweeps in targeted neighborhoods. That must not happen. Such raids in other cities often only provide TV news footage to make a police department look good. But by targeting the same neighborhoods again and again, Mr. Frazier is really making their streets safer.

Just last week he held the third raid in little over a month in the Broadway East community. That doesn't mean drug dealing there has come to a halt, but it isn't as blatant. Enough of the low-level pushers have been arrested to make an impact on the neighborhood's quality of life. It would be good to see the same aggressive approach taken with the street dealers' suppliers.

But the massive drug sweeps have placed more pressure on an already overwhelmed Baltimore Circuit Court. The court is on pace to handle 7,482 felony defendants this year. That's 1,600 more cases than last year. Somehow enough judges and attorneys have to be found to deal with the additional workload. It serves little purpose to arrest people and not have enough lawyers to try them.

The situation reiterates the need to renew the request for state funds to put prosecutors and defense attorneys in the state's new Central Booking and Intake Facility. That would allow immediate pleas to be made and marginal cases to be dropped without inmates taking up jail space while waiting for a trial that probably will never be held.

A million dollars was originally requested to hire prosecutors and public defenders for the booking center. But former Gov. William Donald Schaefer left the money out of his budget and the Glendening administration says the request was never made to it. If that's so, then someone dropped the ball. An important element of the central booking idea was to weed out questionable cases that clog up the courts and jails.

The Baltimore City Detention Center is already so crowded that the new booking facility had to be opened early as a holding site for women prisoners because there was no room for them in the city's jail. Continuing to use the booking facility as simply another lock-up could thwart Chief Frazier's plans to move more officers from administrative duties such as booking and put them on the streets.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has promised to find some way to address the impact of the drug sweeps on the rest of the criminal justice system without ending the raids. Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Court of Appeals has already said he will recruit more retired judges to hear cases in Baltimore. That needs to happen as soon as possible.

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