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Lawmakers undermine court reform; Getting away with MURDER

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AT LEAST Joe Staszak was honest about it. The late state senator from East Baltimore gained renown in political circles when he fessed up years ago to feathering his own financial nest while tending to the public's business in Annapolis.

He pushed a bill through the Senate to enrich his tavern. When asked by reporters if this constituted a conflict of interest, Staszak replied, "What conflict of interest? How does this conflict with my interest?"

Nowadays, legislators intent on helping themselves or their friends never, ever come clean. They sugar-coat their skulduggery. Why, they're just hard-working representatives of the people trying to do right by their constituents.

They dismiss accusations of misdeeds as figments of journalists' fertile imagination.

; It's no wonder the dreadful situation in Baltimore's criminal justice system persists.

Take the most recent outrage, involving state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV. The Baltimore lawmaker stunned his colleagues by voting to kill a bill that would have guaranteed all people who are arrested a lawyer for their bail hearings.

It turns out Mr. Mitchell has ties to bail bondsmen and their lobbyist. Bail bondsmen stood to lose a ton of money if the bill passed because it would have meant lower bail for many prisoners and release without bail for many others.

The Mitchell family was in the bail bond business for years, and Mr. Mitchell is himself a licensed bail bondsman. He has strong links to the lobbyist representing the bail bondsmen in Annapolis, too.

At the same time, Mr. Mitchell represents one of the poorest legislative districts. It has one of the highest arrest rates in the state. More than any other state senator, Mr. Mitchell's constituents need a statute that guarantees them a lawyer when bail is set. Having a lawyer present could save them months behind bars awaiting trial, or save them tens of thousands of dollars in lower bail.

Faced with conflicting interests, which did Mr. Mitchell choose? Hint: His constituents have every right to feel betrayed.

And Mr. Mitchell's rationale? He wants to see how other court reforms work before endorsing this bill. Does this mean he objects on principle to ensuring that even the poorest defendants receive legal counsel at a bail hearing?

It was a shocking display of thumbing your nose at your constituents. Mr. Mitchell was the only Baltimore senator to vote against this proposal. He was the only liberal to do so. All the others were dyed-in-the-wool conservatives.

But Mr. Mitchell wasn't the only lawmaker to disgrace himself. Walter M. Baker, the committee chairman, took the preposterous position that it was better to have thousands of poor defendants stuck in jail unnecessarily than have the state guarantee every Marylander the right to a lawyer when bail is set.

His position was that the bill would deprive small-time lawyers of clients. "There's always a group of lawyers who make a living by hanging out around lockups. This would put these poor guys out of business," he said.

So much for ensuring everyone fundamental legal rights. It's more vital to Mr. Baker that a bunch of lawyers remain flush with clients.

And so much for the crisis in Baltimore's courts. It apparently isn't serious enough for Mr. Mitchell to join his fellow city senators in fixing the problem. And it isn't serious enough for Mr. Baker to deprive his fellow lawyers of impoverished clients.

It's no wonder the dreadful situation in Baltimore's criminal justice system persists. The state's top jurist, Chief Judge Robert Bell of the Court of Appeals, has fought reform efforts in Annapolis. Others have consistently dragged their feet. Now you have legislators going out of their way to ensure that the status quo remains -- despite the continuing horror stories from Baltimore.

It's more important for them to look out for their own well-being, or the well-being of their friends and allies, than to fix a justice system that is badly broken.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 3/31/99

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