In a sign of continued political pressure on the city courts, state lawmakers have decided to hand over only half of the $17.8 million promised to Baltimore's beleaguered justice system if reforms were made.
The leaders of the Senate and House budget committees are sending a letter to Maryland's Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Robert M. Bell explaining that $8.9 million will be freed up for the justice agencies. The rest will be withheld until a status report on the reform plans is presented to legislators in January.
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the court system has made progress since last winter, when reports that chronic trial delays had led to the release of several criminal suspects, including four men charged with murder. But, he said, legislators want to ensure further improvements.
"The doctor always asks you to come back for a checkup," Rawlings said yesterday. "Essentially, we are asking them to come back in January for a checkup to see if they are following doctor's orders."
"Literally, there is a cultural change that we are trying to stimulate. You don't achieve this culture change by giving people pats on the back."
There is little likelihood that the remaining money will be withheld because the funds have been set aside for this year. However, legislators can punish the court system by denying it funds in the next budget cycle if officials don't comply with demands.
Baltimore court officials said yesterday they were not surprised by the move. After they presented the plan for reform on Oct. 1., some lawmakers expressed skepticism, saying that it lacked firm deadlines and benchmarks for progress.
"I think they just want to make sure we are staying on track," said Baltimore's Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller. "We are not relaxing. I hope the legislature will be pleased [in January] that we have continued to make progress and maintained the progress that we have achieved."
Since January, the number of pending criminal cases has been reduced by 23.5 percent -- from 9,089 to 6,947 -- and the number of defendants awaiting trial has been cut by 19 percent, according to court officials.
Trial delays have been reduced and officials have put in place other measures -- such as assigning a judge to preside over disputes between prosecutors and defense attorneys about the exchange of evidence -- to quicken case flow.
Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Tax Committee, said she was impressed by the changes.
"If I had my druthers I would release all the money. I think they are making progress," Hoffman said yesterday. "I will make sure that they get the rest of it, but they are going to have to show that they are making continuing progress."
The reform plan submitted Oct. 1 said Baltimore prosecutors need a budget increase of $6 million -- a 30 percent increase -- so that their office can function properly. The plan also calls for the hiring of a coordinator to oversee the criminal docket and regularly analyze the flow of cases to stay on top of the backlog.
John H. Lewin Jr., director of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, comprised of leaders of city justice agencies, said the legislature's demands place court officials in a difficult position. Though they want firm deadlines for reforms, the plan calls for measures that will need funding.
"So much of what we're trying to do requires money," Lewin said. "We can set up goals for implementing certain things and time-tables, but those parts of the comprehensive plan that require additional funding can't be put into place or given any timetables until we get the commitment for funding."
Lewin noted that the threat of withheld funds is more symbolic than a real possibility. Still, he said, that threat has helped spur some of the reforms in the city.
"These two committees apparently feel they need to keep the pressure on to make sure the job is carried out further," Lewin said.