THERE'S another reason for the current crisis in Baltimore's criminal-justice system: greed. Too many people profit from the current bedlam.
Bail-bond businesses have undertaken a furtive campaign to kill a bill seeking to unclog Baltimore's criminal court system. Their fear is that their lucrative trade would suffer if suspects were represented by counsel at bail hearings, resulting in lower bonds or defendants' release on their own recognizance.
Besides bail-bond businesses, some lawyers are worried. They, too, fear loss of customers, though the bill would allow the Public Defender's Office to supplement its staff at bail hearings with private-sector attorneys.
Never mind that each year thousands of Baltimoreans languish in jail awaiting their first court appearance only because they are too poor to make bail.
Their pretrial incarceration makes a mockery of this society's professed belief in innocence until guilt is proven. By the time these defendants see a judge -- typically 30 days after arrest -- each will have cost Maryland taxpayers at least $1,500. They also will have contributed to the chronic overcrowding of detention facilities. Yet most of those defendants are found not guilty of any criminal charges when they appear at trial.
It is scandalous that this situation exists 35 years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark Gideon vs. Wainwright decision, ruled that all defendants have a right to counsel.
House Bill 889, which is scheduled to be voted on today by the Judiciary Committee, would reaffirm that right by guaranteeing that indigent defendants are provided with counsel at bail hearings. The bill enjoys such widespread support that no one showed up to oppose it at a public hearing.
In the final hour, however, bail-bond businesses began waging aguerrilla war against the bill, saying it fails to address the real causes of Baltimore's criminal-justice crisis. Representatives of the businesses maintain that the Public Defender's Office would be incapable of providing representation at bail hearings and, in any case, providing counsel would do nothing to lessen court backlogs or overcrowding at jails.
These are fallacious arguments used to mask greed. Providing bail hearing representation for indigent defendants is no panacea. It is only one of many needed systemwide changes.
Bail-bondsmen's protection of their lucrative business is understandable. However, the Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., should take a broader and more responsible view. They should reject pressure from a narrow interest group and support this key step toward fundamental reform in Baltimore's criminal-justice system.