Getting smart on pre-trial detention in Balto. Co.

Baltimore County has never been what you would call a liberal jurisdiction when it comes to criminal justice issues, which is what makes its pilot effort at a new way to decide who stays locked up before trial so intriguing. Maryland’s debate about moving away from a cash bail system has been marked by fearmongering (particularly by the bail bonds industry) about the dangers of relying on risk assessment systems to decide who will be released and under what conditions. The fact that Montgomery County has successfully maintained such a program for nearly 30 years hasn’t changed that, nor has the emergence of a similar, highly touted effort in St. Mary’s County. If Baltimore County can make it work, there’s no excuse for it not to become the standard statewide.

The pilot program underway in the county uses a scoring system to help judges determine who would be a risk to public safety or likely to skip a court date. Like similar mechanisms in Montgomery and St. Mary’s, it takes into account things like prior offenses, family ties, employment and education. Although judges retain the discretion to override the assessment, a low score indicates a recommendation that a defendant can be released on his or her own recognizance, and a high score suggests that pretrial detention is warranted. Scores in the middle correspond to a recommendation that the defendant be released with escalating levels of supervision, ranging from phone call check-ins to home detention. That makes a lot more sense than deciding whether a person should be locked up before trial based on his or her ability to post a bond.

And although this isn’t the primary consideration, it’s worth noting that such a system is likely to save county taxpayers a bundle if prosecutors, judges and corrections officials all implement it diligently. St. Mary’s County, for example, reports that it saves about $120 per person per day for those who are supervised on the outside rather than warehoused in the jail. The percentage of the county’s jail population that is awaiting trial is about half the state-wide average, and the failure to appear rate is about 1 percent. Nintey-two percent commit no new crimes while they’re out.

If we’re going to get rid of cash bail, as we should, this is the way to do it.

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