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Reform bail system, don't discard it [Commentary]

Finance

The Sun editorial on amending the bail system ("Better Bail," Nov. 29) argues that changing the bail system from a financial-based system to a risk-based system would provide a fairer way of getting defendants to court regardless of financial status, but such a move would likely create many more problems that it will ever solve.

Judges make decisions about bail with input from prosecutors, defense attorneys and pretrial investigators. The system we have now, while far from perfect, mandates that defendants who deserve release on some kind of bail will get a bail as long as there is a surety attached to them coming to court.

By having bail bondsmen involved, there are licensed, bonded, insured officers of the court who take on significant risk for a defendant deciding to skip town and not appear for court.

The reality show "Dog: Bounty Hunter" showcased these risks when star Duane Chapman and his team were dispatched to locales across the country to chase suspects who skipped their obligation to come to court.

Bail bondsmen can be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars if their clients don't show up to court, and they are a very good check and balance on defendants thinking of skipping.

Bondsmen are required to take 10 percent down, such as $10,000 on a $100,000 bond, though most will take less up front and collect the rest in a payment plan.

It is true that poorer defendants (and their families) won't always have the money to make bond even when the amount might be reasonable for more well-off defendants. But that's a reason to improve the system, not throw it out.

Cash bails are not the answer. They force clients to come up with cash, the entire amount, and poorer defendants rarely can afford that, whereas someone in their family might be able to afford putting up equity in a home as surety, where less cash is needed.

Requiring bondsmen to collect less than 10 percent is an option. If bondsmen were forced to collect only, say, five percent on bonds higher than $50,000, then more defendants could afford the bail if payment plan amounts could also be amended.

Without having some kind of prod, defendants released in a risk-based system, which seeks to gauge their likelihood of flight or danger, won't have any incentive to come to court with nothing holding as surety. The higher-risk defendants would still be sitting where they are now, held without bail in jail until their trial dates.

The state would be forced, on the lower-risk ones, to spend thousands of dollars chasing those who disappear and have no assistance from the bondsmen. Now, bondsmen have the onus to chase skips because it's their money — or insurance rates — on the line.

So, let's improve but not jettison this system.

Thomas Maronick Jr. is a Baltimore lawyer and radio host on "The Tom Moore Show" on AM 680 WCBM. His email is tom@maronicklaw.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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