BALTIMORE's criminal justice system is in a state of panic because defendants are not being tried soon enough. A recent spate of judges setting defendants charged with serious crimes free because their cases had been repeatedly postponed has drawn the ire of the public and elected officials.
Some 5,500 criminal cases are awaiting trial in Baltimore. Defense lawyers are gleeful, while Circuit Court administrators and city prosecutors strive frantically to thwart disaster by tightening postponement practices and keeping better track of cases. At the same time, all are casting about for explanations and excuses of what went wrong.
The first line of defense places the blame on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals for changing the ground rules without warning: Last month, that court erased a sex-crime conviction and set the defendant free because of chronic postponements (six in 18 months). That opinion is being appealed.
Judge Joseph P. McCurdy, who was the administrative judge for criminal court dockets and who granted most of the postponements, has been replaced in that job by Judge David B. Mitchell. Judge McCurdy says his findings were "based upon the law as I understood it."
Judge McCurdy's position has some validity. Since 1979, the appellate courts have vacillated between decisions declaring an absolute right to trial within the time prescribed by law (180 days), and cases holding there is no limit to trial delay, so long as an administrative judge finds "good cause" for the first postponement before the prescribed time has elapsed.
However, inordinate delays in bringing cases to trial are inexcusable, and more grave consequences should be expected if courts fail to adequately handle the caseload.
The crime problem
When one asks why justice is delayed and denied in Baltimore while criminal dockets in other parts of the state seem under reasonable control, the hackneyed response will inevitably be that soaring crime rates in Baltimore need to be accommodated with more judges and courtrooms.
This is not so. The inefficiencies in the city's court system are indisputable: In Baltimore, in fiscal 1998, 1,343 criminal and civil cases were handled per judge; the statewide average was 1,643, according the court's recently released annual report.
With 30 Circuit Court judges, Baltimore has a judge for every 21,760 residents -- more than any county in the state, except Kent and Worcester.
Additionally, Baltimore's judicial needs are regularly supplemented with the services of two or three visiting or retired judges. Baltimore needs no more. Instead, those who administer Baltimore courts need to make better use of their resources.
WIDOW WARNING Despite Baltimore's shrinking population, two years ago, at the urging of the city's administrative judge and despite the opposition of the state's chief judge, the legislature extended Baltimore's Circuit Court to accommodate four more bodies.
But the problem in Baltimore is that a few judges are responsible for moving the caseload. The rest are reduced to unwitting cogs in an assembly line that contains built-in breakdowns.
The line starts at arraignment court, where defendants' attorneys and a presiding judge attempt to work out plea bargains to avoid trials. Although most criminal defendants -- 96.4 percent -- will eventually plead guilty, plea bargains are rarely reached at that early stage.
So a case is arbitrarily assigned its first trial date. More likely than not, for any number of reasons, a case will be postponed: Attorneys are not ready for trial or are tied up elsewhere; the court is occupied with another case; a witness is ill or missing. Nobody involved in the process takes trial dates seriously, least of all the judge to whom it was assigned, who may not even become aware it was on the docket or ever see it again.
Under state rules, cases must go back for postponements to the administrative judge for a new trial date. Before the crisis, postponed cases would customarily go to the bottom of a crowded list, each time put off for a couple months with no effort to give priority to the older or more serious ones, delaying trials for months or years.
Meanwhile, when a court opens up (as mine often did), the assembly line has stopped for the day, and that court goes dark for valuable hours until the next day's round starts clogging it again.
A short-lived change that gave individual judges some control over their dockets by having them arraign defendants and to take more responsibility for their own courts' caseloads has now been scuttled purportedly because it was not working efficiently.
Perhaps Baltimore's judges, most of whom have never known differently, need to become acclimated to an atmosphere where they are expected to exercise individual authority and responsibility.
Elsbeth L. Bothe was a Baltimore Circuit Court judge from 1978 to 1996. --- END OF STORY --- END OF LEG 4
Pub Date: 1/21/99