Sun Calls for Meaningful Bail Reform

The Baltimore Sun has harsh for lawmakers to act quickly and meaningfully to address the issue of bail reform lest the counties be burdened with an unprecedented open-ended expense.

As expressed in a Baltimore Sun editorial:

Two years after a decision by the state’s highest court mandating that criminal suspects be represented by counsel at every stage of their cases, including the initial bail hearing before a commissioner, we still have no sustainable plan to make that happen. Instead, lawmakers once again punted on the issue this year by approving a last-minute, $10 million fund to pay private attorneys to represent indigent defendants at their initial bail hearings — even though that amount may be grossly inadequate to cover the 160,000 such hearings held each year in Maryland.

That’s why yesterday’s announcement by the chief judge of Maryland’s District Court that the state will begin drawing on that fund starting July 1 should serve as a wake-up call to legislators that this matter can’t be put off indefinitely. If the amount in the fund isn’t large enough to cover the costs of all the defendants who are entitled by law to counsel, county governments rightly fear they may have to make up the difference, which could amount to tens of millions of additional dollars.

Clearly this is an unacceptable situation, and the blame falls squarely on lawmakers for failing to resolve an issue they’ve had at least since 2012 to address. It needs to be fixed now, even if that means convening a special session of the legislature later this year to consider the problem and come up with a solution that both serves the interests of justice for indigent defendants and is financially sustainable for local governments.

As previously reported on Conduit Street, the General Assembly addressed the 2014 session’s much-watched issue of bail reform by incorporating budget language to partially fund panel attorneys rather than passing more comprehensive reform legislation. Counties are expected to pay the difference. Most of the implementation decisions, which have been left in the hands of the courts, could impose significant challenges and costs on county governments. Accordingly MACo sent a letter to Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland Ben C. Clyburn, to urge coordination with county governments and county-funded agencies.
For more information, read the full editorial in The Baltimore Sun.