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Politics

Baltimore police aren’t notified when city defendants get released on bond. State lawmakers aim to change that.

After months of surging gun violence, Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner are pushing for proposed legislation that would require better coordination between the state-run jail and local law enforcement — a chronic communication lapse they contend has hindered efforts to tackle rising violent crime.

A bill before the Maryland General Assembly would require the Maryland Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, which runs the Baltimore jail, to notify city police whenever someone is released on bail. That would allow officers to better protect crime victims and witnesses, officials said.

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Lawmakers noted that the issue in Maryland is unique to Baltimore because a state agency runs its local jail, in contrast to other jurisdictions where local law enforcement fills that role.

“Let’s be honest, this is about closing a loophole that should have never existed in the first place,” Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference outside the Maryland State House.

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He said fixing the problem is long overdue and that passing such “common-sense legislation” has become increasingly urgent amid rising gun violence and a number of recent high-profile shootings, including the killing of a Baltimore police officer.

Two suspects were later arrested in that case. At the time of the shooting, one was awaiting trial after a previous arrest in March 2020, when he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and released on his own recognizance. State lawmakers made note of his pretrial release during a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee later Wednesday afternoon.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, sent a letter to the committee expressing his support for the bill.

“Our brave law enforcement officers work every day to remove violent offenders from our streets, and are often surprised when they encounter the same offender days or weeks following the initial arrest, particularly if trial has not yet occurred,” the letter said. “This legislation aims to increase coordination and communication, which may in turn enhance public safety.”

The proposal remains in the early stages of legislative review. If passed, it would take effect Oct. 1.

Some lawmakers raised questions about potential police surveillance issues that could arise.

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During a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee about the same bill earlier this month, Marianne Lima, an attorney with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said the agency opposes the change because it would risk “essentially encouraging additional law enforcement supervision and oversight” of defendants released on bail.

She noted there’s nothing currently preventing law enforcement from obtaining information about when a person is released pretrial, which is made public in court records, and questioned the need for legislation mandating a certain notification process.

Lima said the bill could “undermine the presumption of innocence” for people awaiting trial.

As an example, she described the experience of a woman she represents who was recently released pretrial. Not long after her release, her neighbors reported seeing a police car drive by very slowly with one of the officers covering his face with a piece of paper. That additional surveillance left the woman afraid to return home, Lima said.

Sen. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat who filed the bill, said he became aware of the issue during recent meetings with city police leaders. He also said state corrections leaders had expressed their willingness to comply.

An agency spokesperson has not responded to a request for comment.

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Officials referenced an arrangement dating back to 1991, when the state agency that oversees Maryland prisons also took over management of the Baltimore Pretrial Complex. They said the resulting communication issues went undiscovered for decades.

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“Passage of this bill will send an unequivocal message to both the victim and the perpetrator that the game has changed,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said. “We’re going to use everything in our disposal to keep our residents safe and hold perpetrators accountable.”

Harrison said the new information will allow his department to develop better strategies to prevent retaliatory gun violence and protect witnesses — “those who risked everything to come forward” — with information.

Under the current system, Harrison said, officers are generally unable to notify victims and witnesses when a defendant is released on bond.

“This bill will change that dynamic,” he said.

It also would allow the department to systematically track how often people are committing crimes while awaiting trial in other cases. Officials said that data doesn’t currently exist because of the communication issue.

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Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat who also spoke during the Wednesday news conference, said the bill is one of many aimed at improving public safety as legislators have prioritized the issue this year.

“What this bill does is give people the information they need,” he said.


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