Alarmed as defendants wait in jail, advocates want to reduce prosecutors' role

Concerned by missteps that have left some Baltimore arrestees waiting in jail for weeks before seeing a judge, the public defender's office is pushing a plan to reduce the role prosecutors play in bringing suspects to court.

Dozens of defendants have faced lengthy delays in high-profile cases initiated by the office of Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, and lawmakers are calling for reforms as officials debate how to improve the process without weakening prosecutors' ability to crack down on violent gangs.

"These are people's constitutional rights; it's not a matter of whether they'd like to fix them, they must fix them," said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, noting that the suspects being held had not been tried or convicted.

State law says defendants should get a chance to post bail or ask for release within 24 hours after they are arrested or on the next day courts are open. But a recent Baltimore Sun investigation found that out of 205 people charged directly by prosecutors' grand jury indictments last year, 20 percent waited more than five days for a hearing.

People arrested on the street or after police obtain a warrant have their bail set at Central Booking, but when prosecutors obtain the warrant, they can choose to hold the hearings before more senior circuit judges.

Natalie Finegar, the deputy public defender for Baltimore, said her office wants defendants brought to court automatically, without the intervention of Bernstein's office. Her office has been discussing the issue with prosecutors, the court system and corrections officials.

Under the proposal, newly arrested defendants would be automatically transported to downtown courthouses the next day.

The arrest warrants obtained by prosecutors direct authorities to bring defendants to court as soon as possible, "so they would just be complying with that order," Finegar said.

A spokeswoman for the state's judges said they are committed to fixing the problems so people have "timely access to justice."

"When someone is picked up on any warrant, the judiciary wants to ensure that every individual has a hearing within the time required by statute," spokeswoman Terri Bolling said.

The discussion is playing out as prosecutors press on with the kinds of major multi-defendant cases closely associated with the delays — sweeping up another two dozen defendants this month.

Even if things go smoothly, Finegar said it can take time to arrange a court date — typically defendants' first chance to hear the charges against them, meet a lawyer or request their release.

In addition, the state's attorney's office says other problems come up when large numbers of defendants are arrested at once, overwhelming the courts, or when prosecutors are not notified that someone has been taken into custody.

By having defendants automatically brought to court, Finegar thinks prosecutors would be less likely to overlook or forget jailed defendants. Instead, those suspects would be in court and accessible to prosecutors and public defenders.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for Bernstein, said the prosecutors office has been exploring fixes, but he declined to comment on specifics.

"We have been working with our partners for some time on improving processes to ensure that all defendants have their initial appearances in a timely fashion, including improved notification systems," Cheshire said.

The state public safety department, which runs the city jail, confirmed that it has also been involved in discussions but referred questions to Bernstein's office.

Over the past year, 47-year-old Michael Ross waited the longest for a bail hearing — 59 days. He said no one else should have to experience what he did, and was surprised to learn that many other defendants had endured similar delays.

"It just bought back a flood of emotions because it basically validated everything," he said. "People were like, 'This just doesn't happen in this country.' "

Ross said in an interview that he lost his home as a result of being in jail for so long. After a judge released him, he returned to find that the locks on his apartment had been changed.

"I'm still trying to recover from this stuff," said Ross, who faces a drug distribution charge.

This month, prosecutors announced two more cases targeting suspected drug organizations in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Belvedere corridor areas of the city, obtaining indictments against dozens of suspected dealers.

"Organized drug operators routinely resort to violence to protect and advance their illegal businesses, putting everyone in their vicinity in harm's way," Bernstein said in a statement announcing 11 arrests in connection with the Belvedere case.

The records in the Coldstream case remain sealed. But in the Belvedere case, they show that while defendants picked up in a first round of arrests saw a judge the same day, others taken into custody later waited from three days to a week.

Anderson, the state delegate, said that if the delays persist, lawmakers could explore giving judges the power to throw out charges when a defendant doesn't get a hearing quickly.

City Councilman Brandon M. Scott warned that a failure to protect defendants' rights to see a judge could lead to them losing their jobs and hurt their families.

"Even those who are accused of a crime have rights," he said, "and our system should be granting them those rights as they are written by law."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad