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Isn't it time to fast-track central booking facility?

July 21, 2006

The Hagerstown Police Department ran a prostitution sting Wednesday night. From a law-enforcement perspective, things were going well, but it was shut down after only three arrests.

Why? Because, under the current system, police say it could take up to four hours to process three suspects.

Why so long? Because the county does not have a central booking facility. It's time to put the idea of getting one on the fast track.

It's not as if the idea hasn't been discussed before. The Frederick County Sheriff's Department has had one since 1996.

In its first year of operation, it processed 2,551 suspects and in those cases in which only a single charge was involved, officers were back on the street in an average of 26 minutes.

That was 10 years ago. Six years ago, J. Michael Nye, then chairman of Hagerstown's Board of Public Safety, called for a central booking facility to cut costs and improve efficiency.

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Nye's board envisioned a unit that would have enough holding cells to prevent overcrowding and a court commissioner on duty around the clock to set bond for those arrested.

In December 2002, the Washington County Commissioners decided that they wanted to discuss the idea, but the project, then pegged at $3.6 million, wasn't included in the county's five-year capital improvement plan.

At the time, Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said he was disappointed, because such a facility would shave two hours off the time needed to process each arrest.

By June 2003, the commissioners decided they were interested again - if the state would come up with a large share of the costs. They did commit some design money at that time, however.

In September 2003, $1 million for central booking was placed in the capital improvement plan budget, but the next month Commissioners President Greg Snook said the county board needed more details before it could support a bond bill for the project.

In the 2006 session, the Maryland General Assembly granted $94,000 in planning money for such a facility.

Why recount this history? To make the point that although Hagerstown's police chief and the county's sheriff believe such a facility is needed and Frederick County's experience shows that such units work, it is time to speed up the effort to get it done.

No doubt there are some other considerations here. New employees would be needed to staff the unit and speeding up the arrest process would likely increase the number of inmates at the detention center.

City and county elected officials and citizens need to decide whether to put this project on the fast track, or keep spending tax dollars for police overtime to cope with the system as it exists now.

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