Bail Reform Efforts Fracture, Costs Shifted To Counties

With the much-watched issue of reforming Maryland’s bail system still unresolved as the General Assembly session enters its final days, most observers now believe the legislative response to the recent Richmond court decision will be a series of patchwork steps (mostly embedded within the state’s budget plan), rather than more comprehensive reform legislation.

SB 973 passed the Senate earlier this week, but all indications had pointed to the House Judiciary Committee viewing bail issues very differently, and rejecting the risk assessment reforms that bill sought. Through yesterday, that Committee had been developing two pieces of legislation — heavily amended versions of HB 1186 and HB 1232, to represent their approach to the difficult and costly problem. Those bills have been reported out of Committee for floor consideration on Friday, April 4, but do not make the systemic changes envisioned by the Senate, and their path ahead may have been undermined by budget action seemingly “settling” the issue from the state’s perspective.

The multi-part state approach to the bail crisis — mostly accomplished through the budget process– now appears to include:

  • Retain the current system of District Court Commissioners, preliminary bail hearings, and bail bonds
  • $10m in state budgeted funds to support the Office of the Public Defender hiring “panel attorneys” to provide indigent representation at bail review hearings
  • Additional costs beyond that budgeted amount placed as a new direct mandate on county governments (who do not currently pay for public defenders)
  • Develop and pilot local use of a pretrial risk assessment tool through an executive order, rather than legislation

The details of these proposals, particularly the funding elements, will become fully available as the budget and budget reconciliation bills are released by the conference committee charged with resolving House/Senate differences – as soon as today.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties