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Night court is the solution to backlog...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Night court is the solution to backlog in city system; Getting away with MURDER

With all the concern about the breakdown in city courts threatening public safety, serious con- sideration should be given to the adoption of night court in Baltimore.

While top officials are scouring to find or create temporary locations, negotiating with downtown business owners to convert vacant space could take time and money. That time could allow additional serious criminal charges to be dismissed because of trial delays and other procedural missteps.

Using the existing court locations would solve many of the anticipated problems.

Baltimore Circuit Court Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan and Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. have offered retired or staff attorneys to fill the void. Additional clerical staffing could be readily trained with seasoned staff at current locations.

Aside from avoiding the expense of alternative locations, the use of existing facilities could result in major cost savings to the state.

If this happens, we may hear a judge sentence an individual to a 10-year term in the Maryland Penitentiary years -- while working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift.

Wayne Koczorowski, Baltimore

According to the article "Mayor has his own fix for courts" (Feb. 19), Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's leading recommendation was to establish a night court in central booking. That was also recommended in your outstanding editorial "Getting away with murder."

I'd like to examine more closely why that recommendation would lead to fewer murders and less crime.

Lack of such a court leads to an overwhelmed court system, which in turn leads to inappropriate postponements and dismissals. The critical point is that if guilty defendants could plead guilty when they are booked, the number of cases going to trial would be significantly reduced. The resulting more effective court system would discourage guilty defendants from going to trial, hoping for postponements and eventual dismissals.

No matter how weak a case is, trial is scheduled 30 days later. Police, witnesses, defenders, prosecutors and judges must prepare. This is a waste of time and energy for a case that will be dismissed when it appears in court. And no matter how strong the case, if witnesses, including the police, do not show up for trial, the case is dismissed.

Lack of a judge at central booking to inform defendants of their responsibility to have a defense lawyer at trial leads to postponements when a defendant shows up without an attorney. Too many judges, in apparent arrogance and in spite of law to the contrary, do not find the commissioners' records adequate and postpone such cases -- another waste of time and energy.

More postponements for a case mean more frustration for police and witnesses. This will cause them to stop showing up, and that makes it more likely that the case will be dismissed. When minor cases are dismissed, swift and sure punishment is lacking. This encourages continued criminal behavior, which becomes more frequent and more serious.

Ed Rutkowski, Baltimore

There is an easy, no-cost solution to the criminal case backlog. To understand the need and the solution, one need only sit in a courtroom for a day or so.

First, while court is scheduled to begin at 9: 30 a.m., most judges don't come into the courtroom until well after 10 o'clock. They break for lunch for well over an hour, then they break at 4: 30 p.m. for the day. If you walk into a courtroom in the afternoon, it is likely that the judge is not on the bench. Four hours of actual courtroom time is a lot. And when the judges come out, they spend considerable time on matters that could be handled administratively, such as arraignments, postponements, guilty pleas, motions and other preliminary matters.

Why can't the judges come on the bench at 9: 30 and begin a trial? Administrative matters could be handled by court clerks, the administrative judge and masters. Even lawyers could be pressed into service during this period of crisis.

Administrative matters could be presented by para-professionals, including third-year law students, who are permitted to appear in court on a supervised basis and could handle postponements and other minor matters that attorneys handle.

While judges will tell you that they spend out-of-court time researching and writing, the majority of them rely upon their law clerks to do this. Every judge in the Circuit Court has a full-time secretary and personal law clerk, in addition to the courtroom clerk.

If judges were actually trying cases for six hours a day instead of three or four hours, and if 20 of the 30 judges were handling criminal cases, that would add 200 to 300 hours a week of trial time.

Rather than creating more courts, judges and other expensive positions, we can easily make what we already have work far more efficiently.

Sue Feder, Towson

As pointed out in a recent letter in response to your editorial "Getting away with murder," the best way to reduce crime is to stop it before it starts.

What your editorial failed to mention were the extraordinary programs offered by the Police Athletic League (PAL) for thousands of Baltimore City youngsters. Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier has taken this moribund organization and created or rejuvenated 26 active centers in virtually every police sector in the city.

The centers offer sports activities, crafts, homework help and fun. Recent activities have included a basketball tournament with participants from the Wayne, N.J., PAL; a Valentine's dance that hundreds of teen-agers attended (while adhering to a strick dress code); and an essay contest, with the lucky winner traveling to Alaska to watch the lditarod.

These are the kinds of programs that warrant broad-based community support, both in spirit and with our dollars. These activities will go far to prevent crime.

Sally B. Gold, Baltimore

The writer is a member of the Police Athletic League board.

Transporting sprawl

In characteristic fashion, Tom Horton intelligently and succinctly discussed the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's long-range transportation plan, Outlook 2020, and the myriad, far-reaching negative impacts its hundreds of millions in scattershot new highway projects would have on our quality of life.

His "Roads proposal fails to confront root of problem" (Jan. 22), however, mentions Portland only in passing. In doing so, he ignores a regional Smart Growth-oriented planning solution that has among its several impressive aspects a wide-ranging light rail system that has been fantastically successful. The system relieves traffic congestion, cleans the air, promotes urban revitalization, preserves nearby open and green spaces, reduces commute times and stress and improves services that otherwise would be taxed by sprawl.

Outlook 2020, however, shows almost total disregard for coordinated regional land-use planning. Its starting point is each jurisdiction's master growth plan, none of which prioritize regional considerations.

I don't, of course, advocate that we tear up the roads that we have, but rather that we, as Mr. Horton suggests, redirect the bulk of future transportation expenditures toward maintaining them and improving and increasing transportation choices. Twenty-five years ago, when faced with a similar range of sprawl-related effects, Portland decided to scrap all plans for self-defeating highway projects. The entire Portland area has prospered, and today is one of the nation's most livable cities and greater metropolitan areas.

The stakes for our region are enormous and should prompt us to ask ourselves and our elected officials why we should approve of subsidizing more sprawl instead of a more prosperous, more livable and cleaner future.

M. Mark Hunsberger, Baltimore

Md. deserves competition for local phone service

This month marks the third anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Unfortunately, in Maryland, we are still waiting for the promise of consumer benefits to arrive, while Bell Atlantic still controls 99 percent of the local lines in the state.

The issues outlined in your Opinion Commentary article "Competition needed in phone service" (Feb. 4) are simple. As soon as Bell Atlantic opens its local phone monopoly to competition, consumers and small businesses will begin to benefit from competitive prices, better customer service, new service options and, perhaps most importantly, advancements in technology, such as high-speed Internet access.

Unfortunately, however, we continue to wait and wait as Bell Atlantic digs in its heels to thwart competition. It's no surprise that Bell Atlantic wants to retain its monopoly. It is earning huge profits from its captive customers in Maryland. The monopoly is continuing to charge too much for long-distance access fees, which belong in the pocketbooks of Maryland's long-distance customers.

The president of Bell Atlantic-Maryland seems to misunderstand the intent of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 when she highlights the need for competition in long-distance in her Feb. 4 commentary. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is not about competition in the long-distance market but rather competition in local phone service.

The Telecommunications Act simply says that Bell Atlantic cannot go into the long-distance phone business until it allows others into its business on a level playing field. There is plenty of competition for long-distance service. More than 500 long-distance companies are vying for business.

Moreover, consumers can easily change their long-distance service to a myriad of carriers to take advantage of better prices or better services. And millions of people do every day.

When customers can choose a company for their local telephone service as easily as they can choose one for long distance, there will be real competition in Maryland.

So, let's get on with it. We've seen the benefits that competition brings in long distance and in wireless phone services with lower prices and consumer choices. We encourage the Maryland Public Service Commission to move forward and open local phone service to competition.

Adrian Harpool, Baltimore

The writer is executive director of the Maryland Coalition for Local Telephone Competition.

First lady's candidacy would revive bad press

I am a little surprised that the first lady would run for Senate and bring up all the bad press that has been printed about the president and her in the past few years. Have they not put their daughter, Chelsea, through enough?

They seem so protective of their daughter and then they turn around and subject her to all the bad press that is probably going to resurface in a campaign for the Senate if Ms. Clinton decides to run.

They have caused the American people and their family enough embarrassment.

J. R. White, Baltimore

Sandra Crockett framed photo dynasty

Hats off to Sandra Crockett for her story "Baltimore in black & white" (Feb. 21) on the Phillips photography dynasty at The Sun and the Afro-American newspapers. I had occasion to work with father and son at the Afro-American 25 years ago.

Blaine Taylor, Towson

State needs to help racing stay on track

Perhaps your article on Joe De Francis ("Horse industry may cut De Francis' rein," Feb. 21) could have included background on what may have led him to his stance on slots and politics.

Mr. De Francis is a businessman. His business is to stage thoroughbred racing five days a week for 46 weeks a year. He expects to receive the same entitlements that the Maryland government has bestowed on its other sporting enterprises such as the Orioles, Ravens and Redskins.

If I were in his position I would be very disgruntled with Gov. Parris N. Glendening. How can the governor justify a $220 million stadium built for a millionaire to stage eight or 10 games a year for a franchise, yet turn his back on an industry that contributes well over $600 million a year to the state economy and provides more than 15,000 full-time jobs?

Mr. Glendening claims that he could find only $16 million over two years and probably won't provide any support this year for Maryland racing. Yet the state has a $200 million budget surplus. Funny how he was able to offer $50 million to keep Marriott's corporate offices in Maryland.

Mr. De Francis wants slot machines so he can be on an even playing field in an industry that is embracing casino gambling as a means of enriching its product. This has been hugely successful in neighboring states. Delaware Park has risen to national prominence after being on the brink of extinction only five years ago as a direct result of the slots initiative.

But slots are beside the point. If Mr. De Francis could just get the government handout that other, less beneficial sports are getting, the product and the appearance of Pimlico and Laurel would be greatly enhanced.

Mr. De Francis is trying to save Maryland horse racing. Baltimore survived without the Colts, but can it stand to lose the Preakness?

I can imagine what kind of breaks Mr. Glendening would provide if a new $600 million industry wanted to come here. Yet he wants to do nothing to keep this one.

Matt Goins, Baltimore

Drug-dealing landlords are only part of problem

State officials have responded with indignation to alleged drug kingpin George Dangerfield's activities as a real estate investor ("When a drug lord is your landlord," Feb. 14).

Interest in this situation must go beyond a narrow focus on landlords who are drug dealers. Tenants and neighborhoods are severely harmed by substandard housing, no matter who owns it. The city's Housing Department has taken aggressive steps to improve housing code enforcement. However, the District Court system still lacks the capacity to prosecute all but a small fraction of unabated housing code violations, and property laws still overwhelmingly favor property owners' rights over those of communities.

The city's housing problems are beyond the scope of one agency to solve because the barriers to solving these problems exist at different levels and in different branches of government.

Depriving drug dealers of their ill-gotten real estate holdings is a worthwhile goal, but it addresses only a small part of the problem. The proposed law to identify and seize abandoned houses is essential and overdue but may have limited results with clogged court dockets. These piecemeal efforts must be supported, but only a comprehensive, intergovernmental effort will begin to solve our housing problems.

Jackie MacMillan

Ann Gordon, Baltimore

The article titled "When a drug lord is your landlord" (Feb. 14) had to be alarming to many hard-working, decent residents of Baltimore.

Despite the despicable actions of unscrupulous felons, thousands of conscientious homeowners and renters still love Baltimore and its wonderful history and its fine institutions. They care about the victims of these landlords.

The Institute of Notre Dame is a historic and respected educational institution that has served Baltimore for 152 years. Our all-girls school collaborates with the members of our Ashland Mews community, where 95 percent of the residents are homeowners. We are involved in a partnership with Johns Hopkins Medicine. Our students volunteer at the Caroline Center and Viva House. They also go to Madison Square Elementary, where they serve as friends and read to the students after school.

We strive to provide the students of this college preparatory school with opportunities to be of service, not only at school and at home, but also in the local community and to learn about the social problems that perpetuate poverty and crime.

We commend you for your efforts to bring the Feb. 14 story to the attention of the public. Awareness raising can be the first step in securing assistance for the affected areas.

Baltimore will overcome this embarrassment with the help of God, principled public officials, the local community and East Baltimore's venerable institutions. Johns Hopkins Medicine, the Queen of Peace Schools at St. James and St. Katherine, St. Frances Academy, St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, local church groups and the Institute of Notre Dame continue to offer support and dedication to this cause.

Sister Mary Fitzgerald, Baltimore

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