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Advocates urge Maryland lawmakers to pass bill building on courts' bail rule

Advocates urged Maryland lawmakers to pass a bill building on the state judiciary's new bail rule.

Advocates for criminal justice reform urged Maryland lawmakers Wednesday to pass legislation that would build on the state judiciary's new rule instructing the courts to avoid setting bail that is beyond the defendant's ability to pay.

The legislation, one of several dealing with the thorny issue of bail reform to be introduced in this year's General Assembly session, is opposed by the state's bail bond industry. The industry is backing a rival bill. Both measures came up for hearings Wednesday in a state Senate committee.

Critics of the bail bond industry are rallying around a bill sponsored by Del. Erek L. Barron and Sen. Delores Kelley that would direct Maryland counties that do not have pretrial services units to establish such offices by 2021. The bill encourages those counties to work with the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention to secure private grants to launch such efforts.

Pretrial services are viewed by advocates as especially important as the state moves from using cash bail as a primary means of making sure criminal defendants appear for trial. The Court of Appeals adopted a rule last month directing judges and court commissioners to take into account the defendant's financial resources when setting conditions for release.

Backers of the Barron-Kelley bill, who appeared at an Annapolis news conference, said the legislation preserves the court rule, adopted after Attorney General Brian E. Frosh questioned the constitutionality of the existing system. It builds on that rule by taking the concept of pretrial services statewide.

Advocates said pretrial services cost much less than incarceration and can involve matters as simple as reminding released defendants of their court dates. But critics in the bail bond industry said its costs to the defendants can in some cases be greater than bail itself.

According to the judiciary, only four Maryland counties did not have pretrial services as of 2015 — Charles, Dorchester, Somerset and Worcester.

Barron, a Prince George's County Democrat, criticized the traditional cash bail system, in which defendants are often forced to borrow from bail bondsmen to secure their release pending trial.

"One Maryland means one justice system — not one for the poor and one for those who have money," he said.

Barron presented his bill as "unfinished business" in the aftermath of the court's rule, which takes effect July 1. Unlike the bill favored by the bail bond industry, Barron's bill specified that bail can only be imposed if no other release conditions will "reasonable assure" that a defendant will show up for trial.

The question of cash bail is one the legislature has frequently considered without passing meaningful reforms. Last year, several Democratic delegates, including Barron, appealed to Frosh to issue an opinion on the question of whether the current system is constitutional.

Frosh advised that courts would likely find the system unconstitutional. His advice helped spur the judiciary to act.

"There's been a political logjam on this issue, but it really is a legal issue," Barron said.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, a co-sponsor of the bill, said about 65 percent of prisoners being held in Maryland jails have not been convicted of an offense. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the bail system has often been abused to keep people in jail without adequate cause.

"Cash bail should never be used to placate public opinion," she said.

Advocates of Barron's bill were harshly critical of the bail bond industry, which is backing a rival bill sponsored by Baltimore Del. Curt Anderson and Prince George's County Sen. C. Anthony Muse, both Democrats.

Dayvon Love, public policy director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, charged that the bail bond industry is "profiting from the ravages of mass incarceration" and the "suffering of black people."

Larry Stafford, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progressive Maryland, said the industry has recently ramped up its campaign donations to members of the committees considering the bills.

"All of a sudden they're doling out campaign contributions left and right ... to keep the system the same," he said.

Nicholas J. Wachinski, chief executive of Lexington National Insurance Corp., said the bail bond industry has "served the interests of the public." He said his industry was working with the African-American community even when its involvement was stigmatized as "unsavory."

"This industry did not run away from it," Wachinski said.

It is unfair to condemn the bail bond industry for working within the rules, Wachinski said.

"We are following the law. We are working with everybody," he said.

Wachinski said the industry opposes the pretrial services expansion required in the Barron-Kelley bill. He said some of the monitoring done by pretrial services can cost as much as $450 a month — more than many defendants would pay to be let out on bail.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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