Pretrial Debate Heats Up

The longstanding issues with pretrial hearings – where a good resolution is among MACo’s top initiatives for the 2015 session – heated up yesterday as the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee heard a heavily amended bill that had drawn opposition from numerous stakeholders, including MACo. HB 494, after substantial House amendments, would change many criminal offenses to trigger court summons rather than more formal arrests – but also would upend the rapid disposition system currently used to determine bail/release eligibility for offenders. Due to the second part of this bill, MACo joined with its Corrections affiliate (and many other stakeholders) in opposition.

However, the Committee’s hearings took two dramatic turns, potentially reshaping the issue for the weeks remaining in session. Senate president Mike Miller visited the bill hearing, and urged the Committee to work diligently to resolve the lingering and costly effects of the recent Richmond decisions mandating legal representation at initial pretrial hearings. Then two House sponsors of the bill offered wide-ranging amendments to the bill, removing all the House-passed changes to the pretrial disposition process (leaving the current Commissioner/bail system intact) and allowing the bill simply to focus on increased use of citations and summons rather than arrests. The ensuing hearing left many stakeholders testifying on a potentially obsolete bill, or at least raising conceptual arguments on the undigested revisions.

The Baltimore Sun coverage of the bill hearing and the President’s comments underscore the new attention to the issue:

Miller, the longest-serving Senate president in U.S. history, intervened after committee members started picking apart a House bail bill being presented by Del. Curt Anderson, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the legislation. It is an issue that has bedeviled the General Assembly since 2012, when the Court of Appeals said lawyers must be provided to defendants at every stage of the bail review process in a case called DeWolfe vs. Richmond.

Since then, the House and Senate have been unable to agree on anything but stopgap answers to the question of how to pay for the cost of providing legal representation.

“It’s been two years of hell. Nothing gets done,” Miller told committee Chairman Bobby Zirkin and the other senators on the panel.

After denouncing the Richmond decision as “wrong” and “inappropriate,” Miller told committee members that it’s their job to work with their House counterparts and come up with a solution.

MACo will continue to advocate for efficient and effective changes to the pretrial system, and to work to lift both the cost and administrative burdens currently imposed. Working with the Maryland Correctional Administrators Association, counties seek to prevent any increase in the pretrial population being held in local jails for long periods of time due to personnel or administrative delays.

Note – just two days after this article, the Senate committee rejected HB 494. See our follow-up coverage here.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties