Are we reigniting the city's jail crisis?

Bail reviews: Without public defenders at these hearings, judges needlessly keep defendants in jail.

March 05, 2000

DON'T BE surprised if the population at the city's detention center balloons in the months ahead. Because of neglect from Annapolis, judges could be keeping defendants accused of minor crimes in jail far longer than necessary.

It's not the judges' fault this time. The blame belongs to the Glendening administration and the Maryland General Assembly.

For the past 17 months, an impressive experiment, Lawyers at Bail (funded by the Abell Foundation), has shown that giving defendants legal counsel at their bail reviews lets most return to their homes, families and jobs instead of wasting away in jail for months before trial. Estimated savings to taxpayers: $5 million, thanks to a 50 percent drop in the detention center's population.

The Glendening administration put $300,000 into this experiment last year, but didn't continue the funding. Curiously, the state's Public Defender's Office has failed to request extra funds so all defendants have lawyers at bail reviews. That's unacceptable in a nation where the right to a lawyer in court is supposedly guaranteed.

FOR THE RECORD - An editorial in last Sunday's Sun should have said Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed budget includes a $300,000 allocation for the Lawyers at Bail program. It should also have said that the program could potentially save $5 million if it were expanded.
The Sun regrets the error.

Meanwhile, legislators in Annapolis have failed to pass a simple bill ensuring this basic legal right for all state citizens.

Why? Because of the power of the bail-bond lobby and legislator-lawyers, who have personal interests in keeping public defenders away from potential clients.

Last year, this bill failed by one vote, when Baltimore Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a bailbondsman, reneged on his promised support.

A powerful House committee chairman who specializes in representing these kinds of clients, Del. Joseph F. Vallario of Prince George's County, applied behind-the-scenes pressure to kill the bill.

If legislators are serious about unclogging the city's courts, they should pass this bill. Since the Lawyers at Bail project ended Feb. 25, judges have been releasing far fewer defendants at bail hearings. Last Monday, for instance, judges released just four of 32 defendants, versus a 50-percent release rate when lawyers were present during the project.

It won't be long before the jail's population soars, threatening to overwhelm the courts once again.

An immediate fix could happen if the governor put funds in a supplemental budget for extra public defenders.

A more permanent solution would be passage of the legal-representation bill. It would help reduce jail-population levels -- and costs -- in the counties, too.

Efforts to reform the criminal justice system will disintegrate if those accused of minor crimes are tossed in jail at bail hearings because they don't have a lawyer.

The present situation breeds contempt for the judicial system and clogs our courts. It need not happen.

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