Baltimore defense attorneys are increasingly requesting jury trials in minor cases, flooding the city’s overwhelmed courts and frequently securing more lenient plea deals from prosecutors, the Baltimore Sun reports. The three judges handling the Circuit Court’s misdemeanor docket can’t try more than one case per day, leading prosecutors to dismiss, deactivate, or plea bargain out more than 99 percent of the cases and hold on to a scant few for trial. The glut of drug possession, misdemeanor assault, and theft cases being resolved in courtrooms designed to hear rapes, murders, and robberies has been a long-standing problem in Baltimore and one that lacks easy solutions.
The number of jury trial requests spiked from 7,388 in fiscal 2007 to 8,470 in fiscal 2008 as the overall caseload decreased. Now, more than one in every 10 criminal cases is a misdemeanor moved to the higher court on a jury trial request. Chief Judge Keith Mathews of Baltimore’s District Court attributes the increase to former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s “zero-tolerance” arrest policies, which resulted in more defendants being put on probation. That means more is at stake when they get arrested again, even on a minor charge. As the volume grows, justice for misdemeanors becomes quicker and dirtier, with attorneys making judgments with less than a day’s preparation and often without meeting, much less interviewing, victims or witnesses. Public defenders sometimes meet their clients for the first time when they arrive in court for trial.