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New prosecutor, GBC on the same page

It’s no coincidence that the Greater Baltimore Committee’s best-practices recommendations for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney seemingly dovetail with initiatives already proposed by Gregg Bernstein.

Bernstein met with committee members as state’s attorney-elect and occasionally joined them as they met with prosecutors’ offices in other cities and local counties in November and December to see what worked and what could be incorporated in Baltimore.

“I think that we saw good ideas in all of the offices we looked at,” said Charles N. Curlett Jr., the ad hoc committee’s chair.

The committee’s report, issued last week, called for improving the office’s technology, working more closely with the Baltimore Police Department and emphasizing the training and recruitment of young lawyers — all goals mentioned by Bernstein. But the committee also dove into more specifics based on its interviews with prosecutors in Manhattan, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., among other jurisdictions. It recommended a “vertical” prosecution model for handling cases and legislation that would create a category of crimes in which a defendant has no right to a jury trial in order to make district court operations more efficient and lessen the case load in circuit court.

Many of the report’s recommendations are related to the office’s structure and management. The committee recommended all prosecutors be housed in the same physical space and that Bernstein appoint an executive staff, including a communications director, with clearly defined roles, which the state’s attorney has done.

“The immediate challenge for the incoming State’s Attorney for Baltimore City will be to set a new tone,” the report states.

The committee shares Bernstein’s preference for community prosecution, with prosecutors assigned to specific neighborhoods. Curlett called the approach “proactive and intelligence-driven” but said it might cause logistical obstacles when combined with vertical prosecution, which would require a prosecutor to be available every day for intake. The prosecutor would then handle the case all the way through disposition.

The solution, Curlett said, might be the creation of a centralized charging unit, such as the one Philadelphia uses in its community prosecution model. The unit’s prosecutors screen all new cases and file charges but then turn the case back over to the neighborhood prosecutor, who can weigh a defendant’s effect on the community, he said.

“It goes right to the heart of the relationship between prosecutors and police at a critical juncture in a case,” said Curlett, a partner at Saul Ewing LLP in Baltimore and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

Backlog busters

The committee also spoke with prosecutors in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties to find out how they manage dockets between district and circuit courts, particularly the backlog caused when a district court defendant prays a jury trial in circuit court.

The committee recommended Bernstein’s office eliminate a defendant’s incentive to pray a jury trial “solely to secure a more favorable plea offer.” A district court defendant praying a jury trial in Baltimore County, for example, has a circuit court hearing three weeks later at which he or she is made an offer “understood to be the most generous” available; the policy has resolved 65 percent of jury trial prayers. Such a policy also strengthens prosecutors’ relationships with the bench, the report states.

“The congestion caused by cases sent up to jury trial when no one wants to try these cases is an administrative problem,” Curlett said.

When asked for comment on the committee’s report, a spokeswoman for Bernstein referred to a statement he made accompanying the release of the report, whose findings he called “thorough and thoughtful.”

“I look forward to carefully analyzing the report and its recommendations as we move forward with our work of improving the effectiveness of the State’s Attorney’s Office,” Bernstein said in the statement.

While budget or practical issues might stall some of the recommendations (there might not be a space big enough to house prosecutors under one roof, for example) Curlett said the committee had the freedom to think about the best ideas and big picture for the state’s attorney’s office.

“It is the desire of the Committee that the State’s Attorney seize this opportunity to institute meaningful change in creating a truly professional office,” the report concludes. “Young attorneys who wish to be in the courtroom, trying serious criminal cases, and effecting positive and meaningful change in the community they serve will be prepared to unite behind a new leader who is bold enough to challenge the status quo.”

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