As those who manage jails know, the opening hours with a defendant can be the hardest. Few arrive in a good mood. Most just want to get to the person who sets bail to see if they’re going home or not.
A new process in Maryland, at least for now, hasn’t helped.
“When you keep them waiting, it just increases the agitation,” says Terry Kokolis, president of the state’s Correctional Administrators Association.
A statewide change was meant to aid a well-intended goal: to figure out, more quickly, whether defendants are impoverished enough that they qualify for a public defender as their attorney.
Starting Oct. 1, the financial evaluations needed to make that call are being done before a defendant gets through jail processing, not a day or more later, as had been the practice.
That shift may seem like a minor tweak. But in a jail, where arrivals can surge anytime and where the key to managing them is all about flow, anything that adds time can create long backups and anxiety.
“It was a nightmare,” Louis Le’Compte, a deputy warden in charge of intake at the Montgomery County Detention Center, said of the opening weeks of the procedure.
During October, according to statistics kept by his facility, it took an average of 17.4 hours to process a defendant. That was more than double the time in the preceding two months, and it included a peak bottleneck of 35 hours of waiting.
Over the past week, according to Le’Compte and other jail officials, wait times have fallen — a trend consistent with what backers of the added step say will become a smooth-running process that enhances the criminal-justice system.
“I’m definitely in a ‘we’ll see’ situation,” Le’Compte said. “Right now, the waits are down. In a couple of days, we could be right back where we were when we started this process.”
For years in Maryland, politicians, attorneys and court officials have discussed how best to determine the financial resources of defendants — an evaluation that involves assessing their sources of income, expenses and liquid assets.
The task used to fall to the public defender’s offices, who did the financial review after defendants were booked at a jail and learned about their bond conditions.
If the defendants were released, they met with the public defender’s office at a later date. If they were ordered held in the jail, the public defenders went to the jail later to see them.
Proponents of the old method contend that it not only got defendants processed faster but left them more comfortable discussing finances with people who would become their legal advocates.
But the method also had its critics, including private defense attorneys who long complained that public defenders were too quick to declare that someone could not afford to hire private attorneys.
Under the new system, the financial assessment is done by judicial officers, many of whom are posted inside jails and who already are setting the bond conditions.
Backers of the new approach point to advantages they say it brings.
Judicial officers, as members of the state court system, will make more independent assessments of indigency, they argue, while the detailed questioning about whether a defendant can afford an attorney also may drive home the importance of getting legal representation sooner.
The tricky balance in rolling out the new system has been the time added to a process that occurs in the highly charged and sensitive environment of jail intake and processing areas.
Many defendants arrive drunk, high or both, conditions that can worsen if detoxification kicks in as they wait. Others are mentally ill and may give vague answers about what their prescriptions are and what dosages they require to remain stable. Still others, particularly those arrested for the first time, are anxious and stressed about the unknown.
“It’s very raw,” Maryland Chief District Judge John P. Morrissey told a legislative panel considering the change as he described the stresses defendants face even before they’re brought before judicial officers. “They’ve been arrested. They’ve been detained for hours . . . They just want to go home.”
In jails such as Montgomery County’s Rockville facility, the key steps defendants go through are being searched, being photographed for a mug shot, having their fingerprints recorded and eventually having their names checked for any outstanding criminal warrants. During some parts of the process, defendants are handcuffed to benches.
When the basic checks are finished, each person is taken to a group holding cell — a “tank,” in jail parlance — that generally has concrete benches and a single metal toilet. Those acting out may be put into one of a limited number of single holding cells.
One by one, and in handcuffs, they’re eventually taken to the judicial officers as a time slot opens up for an interview, which is done through a glass panel, about the possibility of a bond and, in the new procedure, a public attorney.
Le’Compte says his correctional officers have reported more incidents of force being used to control frustrated defendants because of extended waits. In one case, he said, when an officer opened the tank to get an inmate for the next stop, another bolted out the door.
“We can’t have that,” Le’Compte said.
Morrissey, as Maryland’s chief district judge, oversees the judicial officers known as court commissioners, and in 2016 he opposed changing the procedure because of staffing issues. This year, after being promised 19 additional court commissioners, he supported the change.
But those 19 positions will not be filled in full until about Feb. 1. The commissioners who are in place will have the task of verifying the financial assessments information, which pulls time away from other duties.
Across the state, Kokolis — the head of the jail administrators group — said that initially, the new process spiked processing times at jails by an average of 35 percent to 50 percent.
Some defense attorneys in Prince George’s County criticized the acute backups.
Veteran defense attorney William C. Brennan Jr., called the delays “ridiculous,” adding that they were close to violating legal protections for timely processing and stressing the relatives of those locked up.
Another defense attorney with many clients who pass through the Prince George’s jail, Thomas C. Mooney, said long waits were especially concerning for diabetics as well as those who need other medication. “You can equate it to cruel and unusual punishment,” Mooney said.
Yolanda Evans, a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections, said she could not provide the precise average processing times. But she said immediately after Oct. 1, waiting times increased by an average of about five hours. She said the wait times have fallen to their pre-Oct. 1 levels.
“They have increased the number of commissioners working, and it has gotten better,” Evans said.
Kokolis said Friday that across the state, he, too, is hearing about shorter waits.
From Oct. 1 to Oct. 29, the state’s court commissioners had taken in 8,578 post-arrest applications for public attorney representation.
“That’s a lot,” Morrissey said. “We’re very good at what we do, but it’s still a lot to get used to and to swallow.”
He predicted fewer, if any, meaningful delays by the end of January.
“We’re determined to make it work right, and it will,” he said.