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Legislative leaders to huddle on bail reform

With a little over three weeks left in the General Assembly session this year, legislative leaders are scrambling to come up with a response to a potentially costly Court of Appeals ruling requiring legal representation for all criminal defendants during bail hearings.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Wednesday that he and House Speaker Michael E. Busch had agreed to work together to try to avoid a legislative impasse on the issue.

The state now provides attorneys only at hearings before judges. But the Court of Appeals ruled in September that they must be provided earlier in the process, at the initial hearings before District Court commissioners. State officials say that would cost $30 million a year — money they say they don't have.

Earlier this week, the appeals court extended the deadline by which the District Court must comply to June, after the legislative session ends.

Miller, in remarks to reporters after Wednesday's Senate session, criticized the appeals court ruling, saying the costs could be even higher than previously thought.

"But because of one major problem in Baltimore city, they want the state to pick up all the costs for all the counties," he said, including opening courthouses on weekends and staffing them with public defenders, prosecutors, judges and victim advocates.

"There’s no question about it," he said, "they made a big mistake. And they’re not about to undo the mistake, even though I think a majority would like to undo the mistake. So we’re going to have to deal with it the best we possibly can."

Lawmakers are considering ways around the court ruling, including eliminating the hearings before bail commissioners, or allowing jail officials to set bail — something that might allow the state to skirt constitutional requirements for counsel. But the attorney general's office has said those solutions could take more than a year to carry out.

"We’re looking at the whole gamut of ideas," said Miller.

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