City to hire staff for court plan


Rejecting charges that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has been dragging his feet on providing aid for court reform, city officials said this week that they have secured funding for necessary staff to be hired by Nov. 1.

News of the impending hires was welcomed by members of the council steering reform of city courts, whose leaders had criticized O'Malley for not delivering support for the effort to streamline the courts - a plan the mayor proposed.

But controversy is brewing about the importance of drug treatment slots for the program, which seeks to dispose of as many as 50 percent of criminal cases within 24 hours.

Council leaders criticize O'Malley for not making drug treatment a priority and committing substantial funding for the slots. They say treatment is vital to the success of the program, which will handle mostly drug possession cases, because it provides judges - and defendants - with a viable alternative to prison.

O'Malley disagreed this week. While he acknowledged the importance of treatment, he says the reform program, known as "plea court," can function without additional treatment slots.

The mayor, who is in Australia to observe the Olympics for the city's bid for the Summer Games in 2012, was unavailable for questions, but responded to the criticism with an e-mail late Tuesday.

"Just why is it that every other major city in America is able to dispose of minor cases up front and target repeat offenders for enhanced prosecution when no other city has 1.) the capacity to analyze [drugs] within 24 hours, or 2.) anything like adequate funding for drug treatment?" he wrote.

"Please don't misunderstand me, I like a good challenge, and I don't mind setting the bar high," he wrote. "But when people in positions of responsibility in this justice system say that they cannot achieve some minimal level of performance here without those 'conditions' being met, I think your readers deserve a little more questioning of this twisted logic."

O'Malley's statements came as his staff scrambled to defend the mayor after John H. Lewin Jr., co-chairman of the reform council, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, accused O'Malley last week of not pulling his weight in the reform effort.

The new plan was supposed to start July 1, but implementation has been slow in coming.

Lewin had said that, despite promises, the mayor had not hired more chemists so that suspected drugs could be analyzed within 24 hours. He also criticized O'Malley's drug treatment efforts for the reform program.

Tony White, the mayor's spokesman, rebuffed the council's criticism, saying O'Malley has been committed to seeing this reform plan work.

Five chemists will be hired by Nov. 1 with a $300,000 state grant so that suspected drugs can be tested around the clock, allowing cases to proceed faster through the system, he said.

"The process has been moving right along," White said.

City officials knew the chemists were coming on board, White said, but officials thought they had to hold a news conference about the grant with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend before they could tell anyone - including the members of the reform council.

At the council meeting last week, Lewin asked Peter Saar, director of the mayor's criminal justice office, and Deputy Police Commissioner Barry Powell when chemists would be hired.

Neither one gave him a firm answer. Saar said four to six weeks. Powell said, "I can't give you an answer today."

Saar said this week that he thought he could not tell Lewin that the state grant money had been approved.

"It was my understanding that we were not ... at liberty to further publicly disseminate" information about the grant, Saar said. "It was a misunderstanding."

Michael A. Sarbanes, the former executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention, who now works for Townsend, said there was nothing stopping Saar from talking about the grant, which was awarded Aug. 21.

Sarbanes said that when he discussed the grant with city officials in July, he suggested that if the funds came through, a joint news conference might be a good idea. But instead, the grant was awarded without fanfare, he said.

"The whole point," of the grant, Sarbanes said, "is to make the [early disposition program] move forward."

While the battle over the chemists is over, the controversy over drug treatment will likely continue.

Council members emphasize the importance of drug treatment slots for the "plea court," formally known as "the early disposition docket."

"Absent [drug] treatment, [the new program] is a revolving door," said Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who heads the city's criminal docket and is co-chairman of the council. "If you don't have the treatment, you are going to send them to prison, you are going to spend an enormous amount of money warehousing them while everyone acknowledges that they need treatment.

"We have been discussing treatment for some time," Mitchell said. "All we want to do is coordinate this program and let's go."

The city asked for $25 million in state funds for drug treatment, but it received $8 million. Of that, White said Tuesday, less than $2 million will be available for the early disposition program.

But White could not provide more details about exactly what the mayor planned to provide in the new program, which has been frustrating to council members.

"There is nothing being offered," Baltimore's chief public defender Elizabeth L. Julian said at last week's council meeting.

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