Since bail reform, Maryland holding fewer people who can't afford bond, Assembly panel told

Maryland's judges and its public defender say bail reform adopted last year is working, cutting in half the number of people who are jailed because they can't afford to post bond.

In the past, the state’s criminal justice system has held thousands of defendants because they couldn’t afford to pay bail, a practice that Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. have criticized.

Maryland’s Court of Appeals voted unanimously last year to overhaul the bail system, requiring judges to consider whether defendants are able to pay bail when they set conditions for release.

As a result, about one-fifth of defendants are being held because they can’t or don’t pay bail, down from 40 percent in the months before the reforms were enacted, Judge John P. Morrissey, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, said Tuesday. About 53 percent of those who appear before a bail commissioner are released from custody, up from 44 percent before the reforms, he said.

Paul B. DeWolfe, the state’s public defender, called the statistics “positive results” and proof that “the rule is doing what it set out to do.” Bail is intended to ensure defendants appear in court, not to be used as a tool to hold them in jail.

“There has been a dramatic decline in the use of money bail,” DeWolfe told the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee after Morrissey briefed the panel on the trends. “More people are getting out faster.”

DeWolfe said data his office has reviewed also show that the bonds being imposed are significantly lower, usually falling within what defendants can afford.

But the flip side of the trend is that more defendants are also being held without bail — about 20 percent of those appearing at bail hearings, up from 7.5 percent before the rule change.

Judges said that reflects an end to the practice of setting bail at hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for the defendants deemed most at risk of committing further crimes or endangering the community. In the past, judges would impose such steep bond requirements because “they were a million dollars’ worth of nervous this individual was going to go out and harm someone,” Morrissey said.

Now, if defendants are considered dangerous enough to warrant an impossibly high bail price tag, they are being held without bail instead, said Judge Laura S. Kiessling, an administrative judge for the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

“Now we’re just really calling it what it is,” she said.

Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, expressed concern that the positive trends don’t reflect what is happening in bail review cases in Baltimore, where judges are often reluctant to release anyone being held on a gun crime, for example.

Morrissey said the city and many other jurisdictions around the state need to improve pretrial services, where judges have a larger menu of tools short of detention that can be used to ensure defendants show up to court — including scheduled phone calls and house arrest. That could be difficult for Baltimore, but “it would go a long way,” he said.

The judges said they don’t know how often defendants who are released go on to commit other crimes while awaiting trial. Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, suggested that should be the measure of success for the bail rule change.

“That’s the payoff question, at least in my point of view,” he said. “Why isn’t it being tracked?”

Morrissey didn’t have a detailed answer.

“It’s a very difficult number to track,” he said. “It’s more difficult than you would think.”

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