City prosecutors seek new office space

Baltimore prosecutors might soon be packing up and leaving their cramped digs in the city's 112-year-old courthouse for a newer downtown office building.

A plan being pushed by leaders in Baltimore and Annapolis would provide up to $1 million for the Baltimore state's attorney's office to rent space a few blocks from the courthouse, moving about 200 lawyers and support staff into their own quarters for the first time since the city courthouse opened in January 1900.

State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein pitched the idea Friday to lawmakers in Annapolis, saying that the current configuration contributes to inefficiencies and poses public safety problems. At times, thin walls separate witnesses and defendants, making it next to impossible to hold confidential meetings.

"I cannot stress enough how it will help," Bernstein told Baltimore's legislators during the city delegation's weekly meeting.

The once-majestic court building and a second courthouse across the street are rat-infested and falling apart, workers say, with crumbling ceiling tiles, inconsistent heating and cooling, and bathrooms that barely function. Lead paint remains, mold has been found and mites are said to live in the carpets.

The phone system isn't wired for individual voice mail among prosecutors, which means sensitive messages must be left in a shared mailbox. Some of the attorneys work in cubicles with low walls that do not allow private conversations. One conference room serves the office's entire staff.

"It is not simply a function of physical condition," Bernstein said. "It is beyond that. It is an issue of public safety and being efficient in our operations."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has included $500,000 in his proposed budget to pay for half the rent. Kimberly Washington, a senior adviser to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor would match the state funds in her spending plan.

It is unclear whether the idea would win approval in Annapolis, where state legislators are searching for cuts. O'Malley's budget proposal relies on an array of unpopular tax increases, including to the income taxes of 20 percent of Marylanders, to help close a $1 billion gap between projected revenue and spending.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Western Maryland Republican on the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he would be reluctant to appropriate money for the Baltimore office if other local prosecutors' offices were treated differently. But "if it means you have greater success in prosecutions in Baltimore, it could be worth it."

There are other demands on the criminal justice budget. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender noted this week in a court filing that its budget leaves it millions of dollars short of being able to staff all bail hearings, as the state's highest court ordered it to do last month.

Still, city lawmakers gave Bernstein's idea a warm reception Friday. Del. Mary Washington, a Democrat from North Baltimore, called it "forward-thinking" and said, "I fully support it."

Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant, a Baltimore Democrat, said it's important for Bernstein's staff to have privacy. "It might cost a little more, but in the end it gets a big 'thumbs up' from me."

Angelita Plemmer, a spokeswoman for the Maryland judiciary, which oversees the courthouse, said she could not comment on the plan because her department had not been notified.

Bernstein has wanted new offices since he won election in 2010, noting a year ago at a meeting before the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council that "you just can't be effective if you're not in a contiguous space."

He noted that his 200 staff members who work in the two main court buildings are in 15 separate areas on nearly every floor. The homicide division is on two floors.

The Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, on the west side of Calvert Street downtown, was considered an architectural achievement when it opened in January 1900. It occupies a full block and sits on a solid foundation of granite. There are white marble columns, murals and stained-class skylights.

Courthouse East is across the street, in the old U.S. Post Office and federal court building. It was completed in 1932 and is notorious for its nonworking elevators. Both buildings have undergone renovations through the years, and a proposal for further work is under consideration.

The Maryland Stadium Authority released a two-year study of the court buildings last year, estimating that it would cost more than $300 million to fully renovate the historic buildings.

No lease or letter of intent has been signed, Bernstein said, but his office is eyeing a property a few blocks south on Charles Street. He said he is looking for a "a very basic office arrangement, nothing elaborate, nothing unique."

The roughly 175 attorneys and staff assigned to work in the city's three district courts, the Central Booking and Intake Center and the Juvenile Justice Center would not be affected by the move.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.