Proposal aims to unclog courts City prosecutors, not police, would decide on charges


Baltimore prosecutors, not police, should charge suspected criminals to keep so-called junk cases from clogging the court system, according to an analysis of the city's justice system.

The report by the Criminal Courts Technical Assistance Project, released yesterday, suggests a radical reworking of the way people have been criminally charged in Maryland for decades.

It was hailed by legal experts, judges, prosecutors and police as a long-needed cure for Baltimore's congested courts and overflowing prisons.

The report says Baltimore police, operating with little supervision, often charge defendants with crimes more serious than the evidence supports, charges that don't stand up in court.

Such arrests have prompted concerns from legal observers that people are being held in jail who have no business there.

Cases without merit or that are difficult to prove may not be reviewed by prosecutors for as long as a month. Meanwhile, tax money is being used to jail defendants who will never go to trial.

And tax dollars pay an overburdened courthouse staff -- clerks, prosecutors, judges and public defenders -- that will eventually drop a majority of the cases.

In most jurisdictions in the United States, prosecutors are involved in the initial charging.

"It's just considered the more efficient and informed way of moving ahead with the case," said Joseph A. Trotter Jr., director of the technical assistance project, which conducts 40 such studies annually with funds from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The prosecutors' "office has the best sense of what elements of the offense are and what they can prove."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier supports the recommendations of the report written at the behest of Baltimore's Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan.

"Overcharging occurs on occasion, and this is a way to have checks and balances to make sure defendants are appropriately charged," Frazier said. "The ability for a prosecutor to determine appropriate charges at the very front end of the judicial process is a major step forward."

State statistics show that misdemeanor prosecutors in Baltimore's District Court decided against trying nearly 60 percent of the 85,532 cases charged by police last year. The most common reasons were insufficient evidence or lack of witness cooperation.

The more serious crimes and requests for jury trials -- 13,141 cases -- were sent to Circuit Court. Though all dispositions could not be obtained yesterday, the report cites one month in Circuit Court as an example of general proceedings.

Of 1,161 criminal cases there in May 1998, 70 percent ended in guilty pleas, 23 percent were never prosecuted and the rest went to trial. The number of cases not tried also includes charges dropped as part of plea bargains.

The city's Central Booking and Intake Facility, built in 1995 with capacity for 811 prisoners, is already overflowing. Commissioner LaMont W. Flanagan said he has to use 300 plastic beds to accommodate the average 1,100 prisoners his facility holds. The Baltimore City Detention Center, which holds about 3,000 prisoners, is under a federal order to prevent overcrowding.

The report, written by two consultants from Pennsylvania, does not mention concerns about miscarriages of justice. But the numbers of cases not tried suggest that the police force needs to be reined in, said Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor. Police in Baltimore have tremendous power, he said. Because of the overburdened court system, defendants often wait 30 days before their case is reviewed by a prosecutor, he said.

"Doesn't that suggest that none of these cases ever should have entered the system in the first place?" Colbert said yesterday. "Our system of checks and balances requires that there be prosecutorial review of a police decision to arrest before any case enters our criminal justice system."

Colbert said he defended a 19-year-old man on charges of marijuana possession this fall. Police found no marijuana on him, but charged him because he was with someone who was smoking the drug. The man was in jail for a month before a prosecutor dismissed the charges, Colbert said.

Another man spent 18 days in jail for a case stemming from not buying a ticket on the light rail, he said. That "would never have entered the criminal justice system had there been prosecutorial oversight."

Police, prosecutors and defense attorneys say it is a well-recognized practice for police to arrest someone on charges they know will not be prosecuted, simply to get the person off the street.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said prosecutors and police have different standards of evidence. A police officer only needs probable cause to arrest someone; prosecutors must prove a charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

She said she was open to staffing her office around the clock, which the recommendation would require: "To get the nonviable cases out of the system as soon as possible is better for the system."

The report cites the success of the prosecutor's office in Philadelphia that put the procedure in place in the early 1980s. There, prosecutors do not charge in about 30 percent of the arrests made by police.

Baltimore's judges plan to meet with other members of the criminal justice system to work on the suggestions made in the report. Any recommended changes will be forwarded to the Court of Special Appeals, which would have to approve a change in the state rules to grant charging authority to prosecutors, said Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy.

The report was written by Common Pleas Judge Legrome D. Davis and Joseph A. Cairone, criminal Common Pleas Court administrator, from Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 12/10/98

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