City seeks to join suit vs. Central Booking


The city sought to join a lawsuit yesterday against Baltimore's booking center, accusing the state of mismanaging the crowded facility and hampering police efforts to reduce crime.

In the past three months, more than 80 suspects have been released without charges from Central Booking and Intake Center because they failed to receive a hearing within 24 hours of arrest. In a court motion filed yesterday, city lawyers blame the state for the long-standing problems.

"If the state can't figure out how to follow the law that dictates that they should operate the city centralized booking facility ... then we're all in danger," said Kristen Mahoney, chief of technical services for the city Police Department.

Since spring, city, state and other criminal justice officials have engaged in more frequent talks about improving the highly scrutinized facility and its process. They have also engaged in finger-pointing - police accusing the state of inefficient management and the state accusing police of flooding the facility with arrests.

Now, in some of its sharpest-worded criticism, the city is asking the court to monitor and help implement procedural changes at Central Booking, where suspects are taken after being arrested in the city. The city wants suspects to be processed more quickly so that they are not turned free before prosecutors decide whether to press charges.

"It's clearly going in the wrong direction," Mahoney said. "We continue to offer management solutions, and they are accepted. But you know what? I don't have time to run [Central Booking], nor does the Police Department."

State public safety officials declined to comment yesterday on the city's petition.

"This is a serious matter that's being handled in the court, and we simply can't comment further at this time," said spokesman Mark Vernarelli of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The motion pits aides to Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat and presumed gubernatorial candidate, against employees of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

Arguments are scheduled to be heard at 2 p.m. today before Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, who called the unexpected hearing. After learning of the surprise hearing, the city filed to be included.

Since April, Glynn has been presiding over the lawsuit filed by public defenders against the state officials who run Central Booking. Public defenders filed the suit on behalf of suspects who were being detained as long as four days before receiving a court hearing.

State law requires that a suspect receive a court hearing within 24 hours of arrest.

Glynn ordered the release of all suspects who don't receive a hearing within 24 hours, an order that remains in effect until fall.

According to police, the order prompted the release of 28 suspects in April, 10 in May and 47 this month.

The city's court filing states that some of those released without charges include a man with 14 prior convictions arrested on cocaine distribution charges; and a burglary suspect with 17 prior convictions.

City police can rearrest the suspects. But police officials said that costs time and money.

"Imagine," Mahoney said, "your tax dollars being spent to rearrest people because the state was unable to operate a facility to process them the first time."

State public defender Nancy S. Forster read a prepared statement yesterday about the city's filing. She said, "I'm glad that the work of the Office of the Public Defender has served to place the conditions at Central Booking under the microscope and has finally lit a fire under all those responsible for and affected by the nightmare at Central Booking."

The downtown monolith is the keystone of the city's criminal justice system - where police turn over suspects to the state, prosecutors decide whether to press charges, suspects get defense attorneys, and judges and court commissioners decide whom to release.

It was designed to process about 60,000 suspects a year but has been taking on about 100,000. It was designed to hold about 900 suspects but regularly holds 1,200. Inmates have described being crammed into cells with people suffering from health problems and drug withdrawal.

The facility has had problems since it opened a decade ago, but scrutiny has intensified in recent months amid high-profile incidents. Warden Susan M. Murphy retired this month after being offered a transfer. Eight correctional officers were fired after officers are said to have beaten to death an inmate, prompting criminal and federal investigations.

Part of the city's motion reads: "In simplest terms, the present situation is intolerable, and there is no reason to believe that necessary corrective action will be taken absent strong and clear direction from the court."

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