Many crime suspects spend unnecessary time in jail awaiting trial because judges and commissioners who set bail in Maryland often lack adequate information and place onerous financial demands on defendants, according to a recently released study.
The two-year study by the Abell Foundation recommends that defendants have lawyers present when bail is set and suggests less expensive alternatives to normal bail bonds. The study examined bail practices in Baltimore, Harford, Prince George's and Frederick counties and in Baltimore City.
"Freedom depends on a person's wealth," said Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland School of Law professor and author of the study. "Commissioners and judges are missing crucial information when setting bail. For instance, they don't know how much money an individual can afford, and bail is not supposed to be punitive. If you set a bail and you think someone is going to be able to afford it and you don't even ask them how much they earn a week, then you're missing crucial information."
Colbert said that in Baltimore, about 850 inmates are in jail because they can't afford bails of $500 or less.
One way to correct the problem would be to ensure that all defendants are represented by lawyers at the pretrial level, he said.
Colbert said he hopes to see legislation enacted to address the problems. He said the study was requested by the Maryland State Bar Association and was supported by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.
Bell also appointed a Pretrial Release Project Advisory Committee last year. Its study is expected to be released in a few weeks.
Judicial reaction to the Abell study has been generally favorable.
"In particular, I think it has a good recommendation regarding the posting of 10 percent cash deposit bails," said Baltimore Circuit Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller.
The study suggested requiring defendants to pay a 10 percent refundable cash bail deposit, which would be returned after they appear in court. The fee paid to bail bondsmen is not refundable.
District Administrative Judge Keith Mathews said the court uses the 10 percent option "when recommended by pretrial services at the bail review."
Mathews acknowledged that some people are in jail with nominal bails but defended the judges' decisions.
"The reason for that is these individuals have been charged with the offense and have failed to show for court on several occasions," he said. "There comes a time when we have to ensure the person shows up for trial, so we do put a low bail on them."