Bail bond industry pays to play in Md. politics

Maryland's bail bond industry is hell-bent in this final week of the General Assembly session to kill a rule of procedure newly adopted by the Court of Appeals of Maryland. The rule would sharply curtail the industry's profits.

The industry has two principal advocates in the General Assembly. They are Robert Zirkin, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, and Joseph Vallario, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. As Common Cause Maryland has reported, the industry has invested heavily in campaign contributions to these two legislators over the years. And now it expects a return on its investment.

A status summary: Attorney General Brian Frosh believes that Maryland's current treatment of pre-trial detainees is of doubtful constitutionality because many remain behind bars simply because they are poor. The Court of Appeals' Rules Committee undertook an intensive study and reported that money bail set at levels a defendant can't afford is, among other defects, racially discriminatory.

The Rules Committee also recognized "the human cost of unnecessary incarceration" — loss of jobs and housing, for example — and its "devastating effect" on families. After taking testimony from all stakeholders, including prosecutors, public defenders and bail bondsmen, the Rules Committee recommended consolidating the existing provisions into a new proposed rule. The Court of Appeals adopted it unanimously.

The new rule cuts heavily against money bail. Although it does not do away with bail bondsmen or prohibit the imposition of financial conditions, it "is designed to promote the release of defendants on their own recognizance or, when necessary, unsecured bond." The rule should "be construed to permit the release of a defendant pending trial" unless there is a likelihood that the released defendant wouldn't show up in court or would be a danger to others.

The new rule is a sensible, prudent, fair and a safe step that should be given a chance to work. The bail bond industry, however, regards it — and the enhanced judicial power it represents — as an existential threat.

The industry has made progress in its effort to kill the rule. Its kill-the-rule bill, SB 983, was voted out of both Senator Zirkin's committee and the full Senate. It is now likely to be heard mid-week in Delegate Vallario's House Judiciary Committee. It remains to be seen whether the industry can continue to work its will.

What is crystal clear, however, is that the industry has bet heavily on its two advocates. Consider the recent Common Cause report, "Pay to Play? How Special Interests Seek Influence in Annapolis." It finds:

• In the period 2001-2017 Senator Zirkin received $78,200 in contributions from the industry. In the 2014 election cycle "the industry gave Zirkin $37,000, or 11% of the $339,525 raised by his campaign."

• In the period 2001-2017 donations totaled $45,500 to Delegate Vallario. He received $33,500 during the 2014 election cycle, or 13 percent of his total fundraising of $255,983.

• Messrs. Zirkin and Vallario "are the second and third highest recipients [of bail bond industry contributions] in the United States" (emphasis added).

•Maryland ranks behind only the far larger states of California and Florida in the amounts of the bail bond industry's campaign contributions.

Common Cause Maryland concludes that Maryland's bail bond industry "buys influence." In other words: It definitely "pays to play."

At least one of the recipients of the industry's largess professes innocence. According to a recent account in The Sun, Senator Zirkin, when confronted with the Common Cause findings, responded: "I don't make decisions based on campaign contributions. I make [them] based on public policy." Perhaps. But I suspect that the bail bond industry, not known for its naivete, wouldn't have spent so handsomely if it believed Senator Zirkin's pieties.

I know that campaign contributions are the lifeblood of political campaigns. But sometimes those contributions — especially when donated by a focused and determined industry and collected by powerful committee chairmen — weigh too heavily on the scales of government. They can overwhelm objectivity. They can drown out opposition. They can determine the outcome. And they can leave the dishonorable impression, the taint, that government in Maryland is for sale.

My hope — my strong belief — is that this session of the General Assembly, as the vote of the Black Caucus last Thursday has already signaled, is determined to avoid that taint.

Stephen H. Sachs (steve.sachs@wilmerhale.com) was United States attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and state attorney general from 1979 to 1987.

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