Book 'em, with high-tech efficiency Eagerly awaited intake facility opens next week


If you want to know why the opening of the new Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center is so breathlessly anticipated, you can ask the politicians. Or you can ask schoolteacher Dorian Brice.

The project, which will be unveiled today in the first public demonstration of its $10 million worth of high-tech equipment, is designed to bring efficiency to the city's bloated criminal justice system. Ms. Brice, who was arrested this year on a misdemeanor charge, knows about the current system's inefficiencies, which she contends cost her three days in a holding cell just waiting to be processed.

On Tuesday at 12:01 a.m., the first suspects will appear at the center for booking. Over the following few days, police officers from the city's Northern and Northeastern districts will set about a new routine designed to save them hours of paperwork.

It's been a long final year in the making of the $54 million building, in which the roof leaked and had to be replaced, contractors had to blast two inches of concrete off the facade and worries mounted that the center had a chronic flooding problem.

There have been heated wrangles over construction delays, and political fights over whether the building would have attorneys and a courtroom. The mammoth structure still is not finished: In December, 50 of the 811 beds will be out of commission as contractors repair a faulty electrical panel.

Eventually, prison officials say, the building will be a hub of streamlined activity, a place where prisoners are sized up and sent through the system without the duplication that occurs now. Those who can't make bail will be sent upstairs to await trial in dorms or cells.

Computerized fingerprints will link a suspect with his criminal history, and maybe even solve other crimes in the process. Video bail hookups will eliminate the need to transport prisoners to District Court. Court commissioners are to see suspects in four hours, and will know much more than they do under the current system about the people before them.

That would be good news for Ms. Brice.

According to a class-action lawsuit she filed against the city and the police department in U.S. District Court, Ms. Brice, 36, was arrested in February on a charge of battery. She claims that she spent three days in a holding cell at the downtown women's police lockup before a court commissioner reviewed her record, which was clean. After all that, she was released on her own recognizance.

And a month later, Baltimore district Judge Barbara Waxman found her not guilty.

Maryland law prohibits police from keeping a detainee longer than 24 hours before seeing a commissioner. But according to an affidavit from Mary Ellen Rinehardt, administrative judge of the Baltimore District Court, suspects frequently have been held longer, especially women, who have only one lockup facility in the Central District.

Central Booking proposes to change that. Pretrial services workers are to interview inmates before they even get to a court commissioner, so a more informed recommendation can be made about bail.

Because the suspects are all being brought to one place and their identities are being checked instantly through computers, the wait is supposed to be drastically reduced.

A small crew of prosecutors and public defenders will be in the booking center five days a week to review cases when they come in, and reduce felonies to misdemeanors when appropriate.

Eventually, officials hope to find money for attorneys to staff the building virtually around the clock.

How many cases can be disposed of early isn't clear, but lawyers and judges who have studied the concept in the past put the number somewhere between 17 and 30 percent. That's between 12,000 and 22,500 cases a year.

If it works, that screening could eventually reduce the number of people held in jail before trial, which would help the state conform to a court-monitored cap on the jail population and save taxpayers the cost of housing defendants.

Whether the center can live up to its billing is the question.

To the cynics, it represents more of the same running in circles: An expensive project to give police time to arrest more people that the system can't handle.

"The last time I looked at it, the total number of prisoners was going up," said Frank M. Dunbaugh, an Annapolis attorney who represents city jail prisoners in a 20-year-old case contesting overcrowding.

"If the total number of prisoners is going up, opening up these new beds is not going to solve the problem. They're going to have to do a fast dance to keep the population from continuing to go up."

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