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One day in court exposes an unmanageable problem


IN NORTHWESTERN District Court yesterday morning, Judge Kathleen Sweeney listened to 18 cases that seemed merely a judicial appetizer for the rest of the day. These cases involved theft and assault. They involved counterfeit videotapes and distribution of narcotics. They involved requests for hospitalization of mentally ill relatives and leaving the scene of an accident and fraud. These 18 cases took a total of 65 minutes to hear. After these, the court docket said Sweeney still had 33 cases to go, making a total of 51.

In the district courts of Baltimore, 51 cases is known as an average morning. In a time when the city prepares to vote for state's attorney, such a statistic becomes important. In the current political campaign, we make a mistake to presume romantic crusades against evil-doers. The job requires a competent administrator who can make order and then justice out of the great conveyor belt of people getting themselves into trouble.

"It goes on and on," prosecutor Neil Janey Jr. said yesterday morning, heaving a sigh as he prepared for the usual onslaught in the Northwestern District courtroom.

"An average day?" said prosecutor Irene Dey, standing a few feet away. "Maybe 50 cases, give or take."

You do the math. Fifty cases a day would be 250 a week. At the Edward F. Borgerding Courthouse, there are four district courts (plus two courts for traffic violations and one for probation violations). Multiply 250 times the four criminal courts. That's a thousand cases a week, times 52 weeks. And this is just one of the city's District Court buildings.

And it's where the smaller criminal charges are handled, the petty street stuff so (relatively) insignificant that it becomes a blur, a tiny corner of the city's consciousness, too routine for the stuff of headlines - or the stuff of great campaign debate.

Such as the first case Judge Sweeney handled yesterday - unemployment fraud. But the lawyer prosecuting the case, from the attorney general's office, had a personal problem and couldn't show up. So the case is dropped. The next case is theft. But the security officer who nabbed the suspect is no longer employed by the store where he worked. He's disappeared. So this case, too, is dropped. Sweeney goes to the third case. It's also dropped, because the arresting officer isn't here. Why not? He's been suspended.

It is now 9:15. Three cases have taken 15 minutes. In a newspaper interview, one Democratic candidate for state's attorney, Lisa Stancil, vows that she will make certain all criminal cases are prosecuted. In such an atmosphere as the district courts, this has the sound of naivete.

So we go to the next case, an assault of a 15-year-old girl by a young woman. But the defendant's attorney isn't here - the reason is fuzzy - and the 15-year-old girl is now living in a group home for juveniles in Upper Marlboro, and no one's quite certain which group home. So the case is postponed.

Next case? Delayed. Reason? The arresting officer has slipped off to some other courtroom, where he has to testify in another case. During a brief lull, a uniformed cop, Officer Tom Gause, shuffles through legal papers on his lap.

"What are you here for?" a guy asks Gause.

He rolls his eyes and gestures to the thick pad of papers he's holding. "Who knows?" he whispers. "We lock up so many guys." He's trying to figure it out right now. "I get a summons, I show up. I work 12 to 8. By the time I get out of here, I'll go straight to the street."

In her campaign for re-election, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy declares "my office" has cut crime. In a courtroom with maybe 50 cases a day, in a city where the cops testify in courtrooms and then head directly to the streets to do the dirty work, this is the sound of empty language.

At 9:40 yesterday morning, Judge Sweeney heard the next case of the day: distribution of narcotics. But the defendant had no attorney and, stalling for time, asked for a jury trial. Next case: another distribution charge. But the defendant's not here. Next case: another drug charge, and one more defendant failure to appear.

So it goes. A man buying cocaine on Reisterstown Road gets a six-month suspended sentence. A man charged with narcotics possession says his mother has just died. The judge grants a postponement. When he comes back, she says, she wants proof of death.

The system stumbles along. The third Democratic candidate for state's attorney, Anton Keating, tells campaign crowds he'll bring private attorneys into his office to help with the huge caseload. It has the sound of a do-gooder imagining the problem is actually manageable.

But it's thousands of cases a year in the district courts alone. And this is where they handle the easy stuff.

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