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Top district court judge points to power of bail bonds lobby in debate over reform

One of the state's most senior judges said this week that it would not be "realistic" to eliminate money bail in Maryland because the bail bondsmen's lobby is so powerful.

The comment came as Judge Ben C. Clyburn, the head of the district court, testified at the General Assembly about proposals to change the early stages of the criminal justice system.

The Court of Appeals ruled last year that criminal suspects have a right to a lawyer when their bail is set, setting off a scramble to develop policies to satisfy that finding. The issue is back before the court, but the legislature has also been hearing from the judiciary about its ideas for moving forward.

A task force appointed by the governor that also looked at the issue proposed doing away with money bail, but the judiciary's own proposals simply suggest cutting down the number of hearings defendants have to set and review their bail. 

At a session of the House Appropriations committee Wednesday, Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who is running for governor, asked Clyburn why getting rid of money bail was not on the table.

Here's their full exchange, according to a video of the hearing:

Mizeur: "Why [is] the discontinuation of the money bail system - which tends to put a price on people's heads for their freedom ... something that is not on the list for further consideration?"Clyburn: "We are very realistic in terms of bail here in Maryland. Bail bondsmen they have a lobby - a very strong lobby - and there is a reason why they're still here. We believe if you get a judge involved very early on this process and you start to divert individuals to community service, home detention, drug treatment, you get that type of flexibility, you can slowly move away from monetary bail. But to take it on and say as part of this proposal do away with monetary bail, lets be realistic here."Mizeur: "With all due respect sir, if I'm hearing you right you are allowing the strength of a lobby..."Clyburn: "No you are, the legislature is. We're being realistic politically."Mizeur: "... to influence a judicial task force recommendation on what may or may not be the right policy for the state."Clyburn: "We are not rejecting changing monetary bail. We are putting in a platform to give enough flexibility that you don't have to use monetary bail."

A number of other states have moved away from using bondsmen and either release defendants on their own recognizance, or under supervision, or hold them in jail. In Maryland, about half of suspects are released without financial conditions but others have to pay a fee to a bondsman to get out of jail.

Barry Udoff, a manager at Fred Frank Bail Bonds in Baltimore and a lobbyist for the industry, said money bail ensures people show up for trial and said the system has stayed in place on its merits rather than his skill in influencing lawmakers.

"I wish I were all that powerful," he added.

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