Bail Reform: A Tale of Two Cities and an Urge for Action

With costs estimated in the millions of dollars and issues of constitutional rights to be dealt with, there is a lot at stake this session when it comes to bail reform.

As previously covered on Conduit Street, both a legislative task force and a judicial task force have offered recommendations for how the State could comply with Maryland Court of Appeals decision in the in the case of DeWolfe v. Richmond. The court found that there is a State constitutional requirement to provide representation to indigent individuals at all stages of the bail process, including the initial appearance before a District Court commissioner and subsequent review by a District Court judge. Complying with this decision will have significant costs on the state and county levels.

This past weekend, the Baltimore Sun explored the workings of the Maryland cash bail system and compared it to the “confine or release” system operating in Washington, D.C. and similar systems operating in other states.

Half of all Maryland criminal suspects charged in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, were quickly released without any conditions, and many more post bail soon after seeing a commissioner.

At a recent bail review hearing in Baltimore, for example, a man arrested that day for theft under $1,000 didn’t appear because he had scraped together enough cash to post his $20,000 bond and was released.

Sixty percent of the defendants waiting in the Baltimore jail are held without bail — a common condition for the most violent offenders — but the remaining 40 percent are only there because they can’t pay.

On average, 199 people languished in the Baltimore City Detention Center each day of fiscal 2012 on bails of $5,000 or less, according to data from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

That might be because they cannot come up with the few hundred dollars to buy their freedom, even through financing options are offered by bond companies. Another explanation could be that no company will take their money because they have a history of missing court dates.

The Maryland system was compared with Washington, who moved away from bondsmen in 1992 and Kentucky who eliminated the private bail bond industry in the 1970s. In Washington, the move has resulted in lower-than-average rates of failures to appear in court and rearrests. In Kentucky, in cases where financial conditions are placed on pre-release, defendants can post their own bail and may often get that money back.

Whatever decision is made in regards to the bail reform issue,  in an editorial the Baltimore Sun urges the State not to “drag its feet” but to take action on this issue within this legislative session.

Last week, Baltimore Circuit Judge Alfred Nance gave a powerful boost to the cause of justice when he ruled that unless criminal defendants in the city are provided with lawyers at the time their bail is set, they must be set free until trial, effective immediately. The state has dragged its feet long enough in finding a way to comply with the Court of Appeals’ two decisions mandating counsel at court commissioner hearings, and as lawmakers take up the issue again in the current General Assembly session, the judiciary needs to make clear that it won’t back down on this matter.

The editorial continues:

But neither the standing of the court nor the cause of justice would be served by a flip-flop on this issue. As advocates for change to the pretrial release system have long argued, defendants are treated more fairly and have a better chance of receiving a bail amount they can afford if they are represented by a lawyer at all stages. A system that allows the rich to walk while consigning the poor to the slammer is neither fair nor just.

Visit the Baltimore Sun to read the full article and editorial.

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