House committee takes up bail reform | WYPR

House committee takes up bail reform

Mar 7, 2017

State Del. Erek Barron, a Democrat from Prince George's County, is the lead sponsor of a bill that would require judges to consider cash bail as a last resort.
Credit Rachel Baye

Nicole Hanson can rattle off a long list of examples of people who couldn’t pay their bail.

During a press conference in Annapolis last week, Hanson, the board president of the Baltimore-based advocacy group Out4Justice, recalled her neighbor who missed his court date after he was caught driving without insurance.

“His wife had to knock on my door eight o’clock in the morning three days ago and ask me to give her a ride to the jail so she could bail him out,” Hanson said. “She couldn’t imagine what she was going to do to replace the $300 that she had to take from her rent to pay her husband’s bail.”

The use of cash bail to ensure people charged with crimes make their court dates has come under fire in recent months. Maryland’s highest court said last month that judges should use bail only after weighing other options.

According to a report published last year by the nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative, roughly 70 percent of the inmates in local jails around the country are still awaiting trial, meaning they haven’t been convicted of any crimes. Speaking at the same press conference as Hanson, Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and the vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said Maryland’s jails reflect a similar trend. She cited data from May 2014.

“The total jail population — and again, these are the local detention centers — was 11,122,” she said. “The total sentenced serving were 3,854, which is 35 percent. Total that were there pre-trial at that time, 7,268 — 65 percent. Pre-trial. Not convicted.”

State lawmakers are considering at least a half dozen different bills related to bail and pretrial release, and the House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider competing approaches to bail reform on Tuesday.

Dumais is a co-sponsor of one bill that requires courts to release defendants awaiting trial on their personal recognizance or an unsecured bond — meaning they don’t pay any money until after a missed court date — unless they are considered dangerous or a flight risk. The bill says cash bail should be a last resort, and when used, it should be set in an amount a defendant can afford.

“No system is going to be perfect, but the number of individuals that we hold pre-trial because they can’t make bail terribly undermines the criminal justice system,” Dumais said.

The bulk of the legislation mirrors the rule the state Court of Appeals established last month, Dumais said. But it goes further than the court by requiring the nine counties that don’t have pre-trial services to set them up by 2021.

Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat and the chairman of the Baltimore City House delegation, is sponsoring another proposal before the committee on Tuesday.

"If a person is charged with a misdemeanor — that is a crime that is punishable by less than 18 months in jail and does not include the use of a gun or domestic violence — then that person shall be released on his own recognizance or under the supervision of pre-trial release,” Anderson said, explaining his bill. “Basically saying that for those minor crimes a judge does not even have the option to set a bail.”

The bill contains several exceptions, such as if someone missed a court date in the last three years or was charged with a felony in the last five years, and it leaves the court with some discretion.

“Frankly, I like about the bill the fact that bail is on equal footing with other levels of conditions for certain conditions,” said Nicholas Wachinski, CEO of the Baltimore-based Lexington National Insurance Company, which underwrites criminal bonds.

Though critics have said the bill favors the bail bond industry, Wachinski said he was likely one of many stakeholders that helped craft the legislation.

Lexington National and others in the industry have a lot to lose, depending on what the legislature does.

Already, Wachinski has seen a significant drop in the use of bail since the state’s chief District Court judge told courts in October to set the least burdensome conditions possible when releasing a defendant before trial.

“I can’t tell you how much money we’ve lost,” Wachinski said. “I can tell you that we’re off by about 40 to 60 percent depending on the week or the month.”