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Prosecutor pares cases from arrests

THE BALTIMORE SUN

About one in seven arrests by city police are made without enough evidence to convict the suspect in court - raising questions from the city's top prosecutor about police training.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said yesterday that prosecutors decided against charging an average of 15 percent of suspects - about 2,760 - brought to them by police each month since January, in a reform effort that had prosecutors take over charging duty from police officers.

While Jessamy said the statistics show the reform is working - by eliminating weak cases early - the figure also highlights the need for better police training.

About 80 percent of the cases dropped lack sufficient evidence, she said. For instance, she said, police often will arrest a group of four people if one is found with drugs, though there is only a viable legal case against one.

"We want to reduce that," Jessamy said. "We're analyzing cases to make recommendations to police about training issues."

She said prosecutors changed or lowered charges in another 31 percent of the cases.

Deputy Police Commissioner Barry W. Powell said the whole reason that prosecutors are charging suspects is to weed out the weak cases.

Powell, who runs the day-to-day operations of the 3,200-member police force, said officers make arrests based on their training and believing "there is sufficient probable cause." He said the state's attorney's job is to review and refine the charges to win a conviction in court. "They are the trained attorneys," he said.

Powell said he wants to study specifics behind Jessamy's numbers to determine the precise reasons for any problems so that training can be improved.

He credited the prosecutor's new review process with helping to identify potential deficiencies. "We are now in a better position to correct things," he said.

The statistics come out of a reform effort to streamline justice in the city's clogged court system and crowded jails. Two years ago, court officials decided that prosecutors, not police, should charge suspects to reduce the number of so-called "junk cases" that clog the system.

At the time, prosecutors often did not review an arrest for a month, sometimes leaving defendants in jail for 30 days on charges that often would be dropped when the case came to trial. The cases also wasted the time of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and court personnel.

Jessamy said yesterday that the latest statistics show the reform is working. "That's a lot of paperwork we have saved on these," she said. "We wanted to do the best job we can to get the fluff out of the system."

Prosecutors began a pilot project in July 1999 charging defendants in a sampling of police districts. In July, they started charging in all nine police districts, 24 hours a day.

Page Croyder, chief of the prosecutors unit at the jail, said there are several reasons why the 12 lawyers in her office decide to reject arrests made by police.

Some have witness problems, others are so minor they are not "worth it," and others lack sufficient evidence.

She pointed to so-called reverse stings, in which police pose as drug sellers and arrest people lining up to buy drugs, a difficult case because the suspect has not committed the criminal act.

In July, police sent 4,058 cases to the prosecutor's office at the city jail for charging. No charge was formally filed in 13 percent of the cases; charges were reduced in 10 percent; and charges were changed in 20 percent of the cases.

Last month, police sent prosecutors 4,493 arrests. Prosecutors decided not to file charges in 17 percent of the cases, lowered charges in 8 percent, and changed charges in 17 percent.

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