With One Week Left, Bail Issue Lingers

With only one week left in the 2014 legislative session fewer large, contentious issues remain in play. However, bail reform potentially remains the “most difficult issue of all” left for the General Assembly to tackle. As reported in The Baltimore Sun:

 [Speaker of the House Michael E.] Busch suggested the biggest challenge would be to reach an accord on bail reform, where he acknowledged there are still deep divisions.

“That is a major issue that I thought some consensus would be built on,” he said. “It’s going to put the governor in an awkward position, plus both houses, if we don’t resolve it.”

The House Judiciary Committee has yet to agree on an approach – though it is apparently heading in a direction far different from the bill on which the Senate is expected to vote on early this week.

The Senate bill would scrap the current system under which a court commissioner conducts an initial bail review, and a defendant sees a judge only if not released at that initial appearance. The Court of Appeals has ruled defendants have a right to legal representation at the initial court commissioner hearing as well as the hearing before a judge — an order that would cost the state as much as $55 million to comply with.

The Senate approach would cut that cost by about half next year, in part by eliminating the court commissioner step. It also would adopt a computerized assessment system that would allow the automatic release of defendants found to be at low risk for fleeing or committing new offenses before their court dates.

MACo supported the Senate approach (SB 973) with amendments, endorsing changes sought by local wardens, and raising principles regarding case management and expected local cost. The version of SB 973 that has passed the Judicial Proceedings Committee is by far the most responsive to local concerns of any proposal receiving attention. However, there is more than just the end of session deadline on the backs of the legislators, as The Baltimore Sun notes the courts have set a deadline as well:

The General Assembly is under pressure to take action because the appeals court has said it will decide June 5 whether to require immediate compliance with its ruling or give the state more time to set up an alternative system. After a contentious debate on the bill Friday, [Senate President Thomas V.] Miller warned that if the legislature doesn’t make a good-faith effort to comply, local governments might have to foot the bill for private attorneys to represent defendants at hearings until lawmakers find a solution.

For more information read the full article on lingering issues in The Baltimore Sun.
For more on bail reform, check out previous coverage on Conduit Street.