Maryland’s courts are implementing new technology. Police are using discretion to make fewer arrests, and more of those who are charged are not being detained pretrial. Inmates are being released early. Crime, meanwhile, has not spiked.
While officials aren’t ready to say such changes will continue on the other side of the pandemic, some want them to consider the possibility.
“If it’s not to the detriment of public safety, maybe it’s time to re-imagine how we do business,” State Sen. Will Smith said at a Thursday hearing of the Judicial Proceedings Committee in which officials across the criminal justice system gave updates on their efforts.
The challenges remain significant. The court system, which continues to operate on a limited basis, is plotting a path forward. They anticipate the challenge of having to work through a backlog of cases, while keeping courtrooms as clear as possible to maintain proper social distancing.
Even the most mundane of court activities will need adjusting. Frederick attorney Margaret Teahan, representing the Maryland State Bar Association, wondered aloud how attorneys will confer quietly with their clients, how judges will conduct bench conferences, and how jurors will deliberate while having to maintain six feet of space.
“We’re literally mapping out our courthouses to figure out how many people we can have in a courtroom and still comply with social distancing,” said District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey.
But Morrissey said other initiatives that he had been working for years to accomplish, such as technological advances and new ways of handling dockets, have occurred “in a couple of weeks.”
It’s still unknown when courts may reopen for all matters. Mary Ellen Barbera, the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, said the projected date for reopening is June 8.
“Even if that date holds, I can assure you this does not mean that Monday, June 8 will be business as usual," said Barbera, adidng the courts are “restructuring dockets and rethinking current business practices.”
Anne Arundel Judge Laura Ripken, who is chair of the Conference of Circuit Judges, said jury trials won’t resume for six weeks after courts generally reopen, and there are work groups assessing how that process and others will look.
Prosecutors said they are working with the state prison system to identify people who can be released early from their sentences. Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said the prison system last week sent a list of 100 people convicted of crimes in the county, asking if prosecutors would object to their early release.
“We did not object to 75 [of them] being released,” Shellenberger said.
Baltimore County created a Saturday court docket to handle pleas and bail reviews “to speed up the process of getting people bail reviews and out of jail," Shellenberger said.
With more people being released instead of detained after arrest, more people are going onto home monitoring, said Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy.
“Perhaps we need to start talking about maybe having a statewide system for pretrial to help those counties that don’t have that kind of system and don’t have options for letting people out,” Shellenberger said.
The Baltimore pretrial supervision program is run by the state. Robert L. Green, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said diversion to the city’s pretrial supervision program has increased 40 percent over the past two months.
Green said there have been 3,399 releases from the prison system from March 1 to May 1, about 1,025 of which were “post-conviction” releases. The rest dealt largely with pretrial releases, according to data shared by Green.
“This reduction is the result of deflection and shedding opportunities through mechanisms available to the department,” Green told legislators.
Paul B. DeWolfe, the state’s top public defender, said the pretrial jail population statewide is down 20 percent compared to this time last year. As defense attorneys often advocate that a client be released, DeWolfe said the change has been due largely to prosecutors now agreeing.
DeWolfe said his staff remain concerned about conditions for those being held, and about accommodations to allow attorneys to confer with their clients.
“We are quite frankly having difficulty accessing our clients at all in some jurisdictions,” he said, calling for an expansion of video conferencing.