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Baltimore prosecutors, defense, court work to reduce activity and decrease jail population

Criminal justice partners in Baltimore, which has the highest volume of criminal cases in the state, are working to reduce courthouse traffic, caseloads and the inmate population as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby told prosecutors Wednesday to drop all pending charges for drug possession, attempted distribution, prostitution, trespassing, minor traffic offenses, open container and public urination, according to The Baltimore Sun. Mosby said the order was to reduce the potential spread of the virus in detention centers.

Mosby’s office is closed until April 6, according to a recorded message on the office’s phone. A spokesperson did not return a call seeking comment.

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender confirmed Mosby’s order Wednesday, saying the OPD has identified at least 60 individuals who should be released under the new policy.

“Ongoing detention during this public health crisis threatens the lives of our clients and creates conditions that will exacerbate the spread of this pandemic,” Kirsten Gettys Downs, district public defender for Baltimore city, said in a statement. “The urgency of the current situation requires leadership throughout Baltimore. The State’s Attorney’s exercise of her authority to reduce the detention population and focus on more serious cases will save lives.”

Downs characterized the affected defendants as individuals who “pose no significant safety risk in the community” but whose continued detention is a health threat.

“There continue to be large numbers of people incarcerated at the jail who are vulnerable during this pandemic, but this step by Ms. Mosby represents tremendous progress in recognizing the criminal justice system’s role in this public health crisis,” Downs said.

Mosby is among the state prosecutors working with the Maryland OPD to reduce the inmate population by asking that certain people be released, including those at increased risk due to age or health conditions.

Baltimore City Circuit Court’s reception court also agreed Tuesday to hear criminal cases only when a plea agreement is in place.

Reception court — where criminal cases begin before being assigned to a judge for trial or a plea or postponed — had been operating as usual this week, the same week that Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued orders that suspended jury trials and reduced courthouses to essential personnel.

A discussion Tuesday afternoon with Judge Melissa M. Phinn, who oversees reception court, as well as with prosecutors, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and the private bar, addressed attorneys’ concerns about continuing to conduct usual proceedings during the coronavirus outbreak, when large gatherings are discouraged, according to Melissa Rothstein, director of policy and development for the OPD.

Phinn decided that, after Wednesday, attorneys will notify the court when there is a plea and the defendant will be transported to court, according to Rothstein. Cases without an agreed-upon plea will be postponed.

“We are pleased that the court responded to the concerns of our office and the private defense bar regarding the way that reception court operates,” Baltimore Deputy District Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said in a statement Tuesday.

Baltimore attorney Ivan Bates praised the decision Wednesday and said other jurisdictions were making similar decisions.

“We really thank the leadership of the defense bar as well as the public defender’s office for having that meeting,” said Bates, partner at Bates & Garcia P.C.

But Dartigue cautioned that defense attorneys were concerned that clients would feel pressured to plead guilty or else face a months-long postponement.

“We remain very concerned about the clear pressure on our clients to plead guilty,” she said. “There is a delicate balance between the public health concerns and constitutional protections needed.”

Bates agreed that there is a worry that clients will plead guilty to get out of jail, but he said that nonviolent offenders facing a relatively small amount of jail time were also being offered a sentence of time served by prosecutors, allowing them to be released.

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