Marijuana bust helped set advocate on course that led to defeat of bail bill

A college marijuana bust helped set Caryn York on a course to lead the coalition that persuaded the General Assembly to uphold a new judiciary rule diminishing the role of money bail in determining who goes free and who stays in jail until trial.

After the session opened in January, the 32-year-old advocate was a constant presence in the State House and outside House and Senate committee rooms, where she organized opposition to legislation the influential bail bond industry pushed to preserve the stature of money bail among pretrial release conditions.

The Baltimore woman with a blazing smile and dramatic Afro cajoled lawmakers, led rallies and strategized with high-level allies in an effort to preserve the rule. On Monday, the Assembly adjourned its annual 90-day session with the judiciary's rule intact.

York and other advocates, including the majority of the Legislative Black Caucus, were opposed by an industry deeply involved in Maryland politics. A study released by Common Cause Maryland this year found that Maryland ranks third among states in bail bond industry campaign contributions, trailing only much larger California and Florida. Between 2011 and 2016, bail bond companies and their key players contributed more than $288,000 to the campaigns of Maryland politicians.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who issued an opinion in October questioning the constitutionality of keeping defendants in jail if they couldn't afford bail, praised York's advocacy.

"She's knowledgeable. She works hard. She has good connections," he said. "People trust her. She's been a very positive force."

Frosh's opinion helped set in motion a process that led the Court of Appeals to unanimously approve a rule that told judges and court commissioners not to use bail as a means of keeping defendants in jail to ensure public safety. The court ruled, in effect, that if defendants are considered dangerous they should be held without bail and otherwise should be released with conditions designed to assure they will appear for trial.

They instructed the lower courts that when they do set bail, they must take into account the defendant's ability to pay.

Most critically, the top court set up a hierarchy of options as conditions for pretrial release — and put cash bail at the bottom. That was this provision the industry tried to reverse through new legislation. They and the lawmakers who supported them said money bail was less expensive for defendants than some alternatives, such as ankle bracelet monitoring.

The bill passed the Senate but never advanced to the full House of Delegates, where York virtually set up shop outside the Judiciary Committee offices.

Even her adversaries offered grudging praise.

Nicholas J. Wachinski, chief executive of Lexington National Insurance Corp. and a spokesman for the bail bond industry, has spent hours this session waiting outside the same committee rooms as York. He said he doesn't agree with her opinions but "she's always conducted herself as a lady."

York came to the effort after about six years as an advocate in Annapolis on criminal justice issues for the Job Opportunities Task Force, which taught her the devastating effects a criminal record can have on a person's employment prospects.

She said that made her think back to her first year as a student at Washington College in Chestertown, where she was arrested while smoking marijuana with friends.

"We were arrested and booked and spent the night in jail," York recalled. She received probation before judgment.

York said she was "terrified" when she realized how the college misstep could have hurt her future career.

"The idea that a criminal record could work lifelong consequences opened my eyes up to the larger disparities in our criminal justice system," she said.

As the task force's advocate in Annapolis, York threw herself into a series of issues related to jobs and the burden of a criminal record. That's how she became involved in the bail issue.

"It doesn't matter how long you're in jail — three months or three years. It's all a departure from your life and your family," she said. "I'm not a criminal justice advocate. I'm actually a work force advocate."

Minor Carter, the veteran lobbyist hired by the bail reform advocates to help their effort this year, said York has a gift for working with lawmakers.

"She's high energy and high enthusiasm," Carter said. "She has a good sense with people. ... I'm glad I'm on her side."

York said she was recently in the office of Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Judiciary Committee chairman and a frequent adversary, and was banging her fist on his desk.

"He says, 'Young lady, what law school did you go to?' " she recalled.

That now is her goal — to attend law school at night while continuing her lobbying career.

"I'm pretty sure when I get that law degree I'll be unstoppable,'" York said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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