- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2000

ANNAPOLIS, Md. Judges and prosecutors have made dramatic progress in bringing order to Baltimore's troubled criminal justice system, Chief Judge Robert Bell of the Court of Appeals told lawmakers yesterday.

He said the progress in clearing away a huge backlog of untried cases is "a testament to the dedication and hard work of the judges of that bench who, though unjustifiably maligned, never faltered in the quest to dispose of cases and in the process, do justice."

In a State of the Judiciary address delivered to a joint session of the Maryland General Assembly, Judge Bell said the number of cases that had to be postponed was reduced 32 percent between 1998 and 1999. The number of defendants awaiting trial was reduced 58 percent and the number of cases awaiting trial was reduced 51 percent.

And for the first time since 1995, the city's Circuit Court judges disposed of more cases than were filed by the state's attorney's office, Judge Bell said.

The Circuit Court system came under intense criticism last year after several highly publicized cases in which appellate courts dismissed murder or burglary charges against defendants who had been held for long periods without being brought to trial.

Judge Bell said the city's circuit judges, accused by some lawmakers of not working hard enough, are just one part of "a complex, sometimes conflict-laden, criminal-justice system that includes police, prosecutors, defense counsel, correctional institutions and a host of supporting agencies."

Problems with the city's clogged court system can only be corrected if all parts of the system work together, he said.

Addressing other needs of state courts, Judge Bell asked the legislature to approve $6.7 million for five family court judges, one each in Baltimore and the state's four largest counties. He said there is a need for seven other additional judges but asked for just one, for the Worcester County Circuit Court.

Judge Bell also asked for funding for alternative dispute resolution pilot projects in schools, courts and state and local governments, which would encourage people to settle conflicts outside state courtrooms.

"The administration of our court system is hampered by a 'culture of conflict.' It strains our court system, overcrowds our prisons and creates fear in our neighborhoods and schools," Judge Bell said.

"Left unattended, some conflict situations will fester and grow and, far too often, explode into violence," he said.

Finding other ways to settle disputes through conflict resolution would make the courts more effective and efficient, Judge Bell said.

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