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Maryland's highest court will consider cash bail reform

A rule change that would ensure defendants in Maryland are not kept in jail only because they can't afford bail will be considered by the state's highest court.

The change — backed by Attorney General Brian Frosh but opposed by key General Assembly lawmakers with oversight over the judiciary — was sent to the Court of Appeals Friday by a little-known judicial rules committee by an 18-5 vote, a court spokeswoman said.

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The Maryland judiciary's Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure met to consider the change after Frosh opined the state's long standing money bail system is unconstitutional.

Frosh shared that opinion last month in a letter of advice to five state delegates who had asked for his advice on the practice.

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Legislators, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Sen. Robert A. "Bobby" Zirkin, chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, opposed such action in a letter sent this month to the committee's chair, Judge Alan M. Wilner.

The legislators wrote that they did not believe the committee "should act as a legislative policy making body" — particularly without a legal case challenging the current practice appearing before the judiciary in court.

With the committee's vote on Friday, the amended rule governing cash bail will be open for public comment for 30 days, according to Terri Charles, the court spokeswoman. The court will accept written comments on the rule change.

Charles said the Court of Appeals will then schedule a public hearing, where comments will also be heard. Those wishing to comment at the hearing must contact the Court of Appeals clerk's office.

Representatives of bail bondsmen in the state opposed the change. Advocates for criminal and indigent defendants have supported it for years.

University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert, a champion of the change, praised the committee's vote.

"It really is a historic moment, moving one huge step forward, away from money deciding an individual's liberty or jailing before trial," he said. "It brings ... equal justice for the richest person as well as the poorest, and recognizes that every person's liberty should be given the same high regard."

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