Bail and jail

April 30, 1991

City police are justifiably alarmed over the revolving-door nature of pre-trial detention in Baltimore. As The Sun reported in its lead story on Sunday, defendants accused of multiple violent crimes, including murder, are routinely being released on bail within hours after their arrest.

Judges who set bail virtually concede that they often dispense assembly-line justice. But they also argue persuasively that the sheer volume of cases leaves them little alternative. Moreover, in at least one of the cases involving a drug-related murder, city prosecutors, themselves overwhelmed by the explosion of city crime, were not even present to argue for holding an individual charged with murder and already awaiting trial on charges that he committed four previous crimes involving guns and drugs.

But clearly another factor is the continued reliance on the money-bail system -- the requirement that defendants post a specified amount of cash or property in order to gain release.

For big-time drug dealers who engage in street assassinations of competitors, money is simply no object. They can hire top legal talent and, more importantly, pay the exorbitant fees charged by professional bail bond services. They are so confident that money speaks that even as they are being arraigned, they boast to police officers that they'll be out of jail by nightfall. Police say they use their freedom to intimidate potential witnesses against them.

Meanwhile, teen-agers who commit even nonviolent crimes, if their families are unable to meet the bail bondsman's fee, could remain in prison until trial even if bail is set at a relatively low amount. For those who have no money, even $10 could be sufficient to keep them incarcerated.

So once again we have proof positive that the money-bail system simply doesn't work in urban criminal-justice systems. Sooner or later that method of determining which defendants go free and which stay in jail will have to be scrapped in favor of a system that places emphasis on a defendant's potential danger to the community rather than ability to raise bail.

Yes, the jails are full. But the question is, are they full of the wrong people?

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