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Black caucus recommends no action on bail reform bills

Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus would prefer that no bail reform bill passes this year.

The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus voted Thursday to recommend that the General Assembly take no action on any of the bail reform bills before it this year and let a landmark rule adopted by the state's high court take effect without alteration.

The narrow vote was a victory for Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and a setback for the bail bond industry, which has been supporting a bill in the Senate. However, a Senate committee rejected the caucus position Thursday night and approved a bill backing off parts of the rule.

Supporters of the Court of Appeals rule, which instructs judges and commissioners not to set bail defendants can't afford, have not been pleased with the bill taking shape in a Senate committee. They contend the bill, portrayed by supporters as a compromise, would actually undo the rule.

The Caucus made its recommendation after an 18-13 vote that followed extensive debate. The caucus earlier rejected a motion to wait to see what the the Senate came up with before taking a position.

Del. Cheryl Glenn, the caucus chair, said letters would be sent to the Senate Judicial Proceedings and House Judiciary committees informing lawmakers that the Caucus prefers they take no action on bail.

The House and Senate are not required to abide by the Caucus recommendation, but the views of African-American lawmakers could have significant influence on the bail issue. Critics of the traditional bail system say poor defendants, many of them black, are most likely to be held in jail because the can't afford bail.

A key to the caucus vote was Del. Curt Anderson's decision to withdraw his support from the bill supported by the bail bond industry. The Baltimore Democrat had been the bill's House sponsor.

After the vote, Frosh shook hands with Anderson and whispered "thank you."

Anderson said he put the bill in before the court issued the rule in early February. He said the rule, along with some of the trends reported by the courts since its adoption, had persuaded him that the legislature should hold off on any course changes.

Anderson said it was likely that he would withdraw his bill. Such a move would typically kill it in the House. But it was not clear whether that would be the final blow.

As of Thursday morning, the Senate committee had not approved any bill. It was still working on a proposal to combine various bills in the Senate. One bill is supported by the bail industry and sponsored by Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's Committee Democrat. The other — opposed by the industry — is sponsored by Sen. Delores Kelley and largely codifies the court rule.

Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she doesn't support the effort to create a compromise bill and prefers no action at all.

"The bail industry has a bill that is being presented as a reform bill, which it really is not," she said.

However, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, led his committee in approving a version of Muse's bill that opponents contend would undo the rule and restore the role of cash bail in the system. Zirkin insisted his committee's bill would lead to fewer defendants being incarcerated pending trial while restoring discretion to judges. That measure now goes to the Senate floor.

Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Republican member of the committee supported Zirkin's position.

"The judiciary is not the policy-making body in this state," Hough said before the committee vote. The Frederick County lawmaker said he has problems with the judiciary's rule that defendants must be released under the "least onerous conditions" that will protect public safety.

"What does that mean?" Hough asked.

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