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Council urges court action; Members want Jessamy to take over charging duties; 'We need to act'; Resolution lacks legal authority over state's attorney


Portraying a growing frustration with Baltimore's clogged court system, the City Council called on State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy last night to clear crowded dockets by weeding out weak cases and focusing on serious charges.

By unanimous vote, the 19-member council passed a resolution that urges Jessamy to take from police officers the responsibility for filing charges against suspects.

Prosecutors would review the arrests and decide which charges they could prove in court. Council members said such a move would help the courts dispose of cases more quickly.

A resolution has no legal authority but states the council's position on an issue.

The state's attorney's office would likely have to hire more lawyers to handle the charging duties.

But the council deferred action on a second resolution that urges the mayor to pay for the additional lawyers with $1 million from an account that pays police overtime for court appearances. The council approves the court system's budget.

"Our courts are a national joke, and we need to act," said Councilman Martin O'Malley, who sponsored the resolution.

The resolution was a response to problems in city courts that led to the dismissal of a case against two men charged with robbery and carjacking, who had awaited trial beyond the 180-day "speedy trial" requirement because of postponements and procedural errors. An article detailing the case was published in The Sun last week.

Baltimore's court system has been under fire for years because of its backlog of cases. But the severity of the problem made headlines recently when judges began dismissing cases that had been languishing in the system for months and hadn't gone to trial.

Jessamy and the judges have been heavily criticized because of the problem. In response, they have cracked down on the number of postponements of cases; placed older cases on a fast track and brought in retired judges to hear them; and freed judges from duties that took them away from holding trials.

Jessamy has said that she's interested in charging suspects but that the shift requires a change in state procedural rules.

The court problems could adversely affect Jessamy's interest in running for mayor in this year's municipal elections. She just won re-election and would not lose her job if she ran for mayor.

The problems in the court system could also affect incumbent council members, if voters decide to take out their frustrations on them.

"Our citizenry is losing confidence in our criminal justice system," said Councilman Robert Curran. "We are going to be held accountable in September for this criminal justice system."

Last night, mayoral hopeful and council President Lawrence A. Bell III broke his silence on the court issue, although he continues to shy away from personal attacks on anyone, including Jessamy, one of his potential opponents.

"I do think there is a crisis," Bell said during the council meeting. "There is a challenge that needs to be met. Public safety is No. 1. If there is a problem, we need to make adjustments."

O'Malley, one of Bell's strongest supporters, has been capitalizing on the recent troubles in the courts to push his proposals for reforms in the criminal justice system, including the zero tolerance crime-fighting strategy that helped New York City reduce crime and relieving police of charging duties.

Councilman Melvin L. Stukes said he wants the governor, the state comptroller, the state secretary for public safety and top-level judges to meet with the council.

Councilman John L. Cain called for action before Baltimore is issued a court order to fix its problems.

"I don't think we should have to be embarrassed by the state courts telling the city courts that they have to clean up their act," Cain said.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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