Bail reform proposals could hurt poor defendants, state argues

State judiciary administrators have asked the state's top court to throw out a landmark ruling that poor defendants have a constitutional right to public defenders at their first bail hearings.

The request came this week as lawmakers attempt to respond to the decision, discussing sweeping changes to the way the state handles defendants before trial.


But in this week's court filing, the attorney general's office questioned whether the legislative proposals would give low-risk defendants a better chance of being quickly freed, arguing the opposite could happen.

Maryland now provides public defenders to defendants when a judge reviews the bail amount set by a district court commissioner. But the state's highest court ruled in September that suspects also have a right to representation when their bail is set, a requirement that could cost the state $30 million per year.


"The current system strikes an appropriate balance among considerations of cost, public safety, and protection of the rights of the accused," state lawyers wrote. "The decision … should be overruled."

The high court is scheduled to hear arguments March 7 over the implementation of the ruling. Typically, the court follows a policy of letting its previous rulings stand, but in the bail case, the judiciary's attorneys said the decision was so misguided that it should be thrown out.

For years, advocates for poor people suspected of crimes have been pushing for lawyers to be present at bail hearings before district court commissioners, arguing that they stand a better chance of being released if they have legal representation.

The high court ruling represented a victory for bail reform advocates, but the state argued in the filing that it could wind up leaving defendants in jail longer because they would have to wait for a hearing at which a lawyer could be present.

"The reasoning of the decision is based on faulty premises and erroneous factual assumptions, and it now appears likely to produce perverse results, by delaying many arrestees' opportunity for a prompt release from custody after an arrest," the lawyers wrote.

An attorney for the plaintiffs in the case declined to comment. They are scheduled to file a response in court by the end of the month.

Paul B. DeWolfe Jr., the head of the public defender system, said the court's decision has been misunderstood. It was not about fattening his office's budget, he said, but helping get defendants who don't pose a risk to the public out of jail.

DeWolfe said many inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center are being held because they can't make bail of about $250.


"Historically if you have money, you have resources, you get out," he said. "If you're poor, you don't have resources, you stay in jail."

DeWolfe also endorsed a legislative proposal that would permit jail officials to use a computerized tool to determine which defendants can be safely released right away, sidestepping the need to provide lawyers for those suspects.

The proposal would create a statewide agency to supervise defendants who are out on the street pending trial.

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Money bail would only be allowed in cases in which a detainee was determined to be enough of a risk that the case had to be referred to a judge.

Harford County Sheriff L. Jesse Bane gave colorful testimony in Annapolis, describing many of his jail cells as being occupied by people who weren't necessarily dangerous but who were homeless, mentally ill or addicted to drugs.

"My jail should be a jail. It should not be the Harford County homeless shelter," he said. "It shouldn't be the Harford County insane asylum."


Testifying against the proposal was Mike Adams, a Baltimore bail bondsman, who said it would cost too much. State budget analysts have yet to put a price tag on the plan.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.