Bigger Balto. Co. jail won't cure crowding

More cells: Representation at bail hearings could reduce the need to expand detention center.

July 31, 2000

BALTIMORE COUNTY may have crowded jails, but the solution is not to expand the Detention Center on Kenilworth Avenue or build a new jail at some other location. The answer may be fixing a problem found several blocks away on Chesapeake Avenue at the Towson District Court.

Every weekday, people arrested and charged with crimes go before District Court judges for bail reviews. But very few of these defendants - even those charged with nonviolent misdemeanors - get released.

That's because virtually every defendant has to post bail, usually set between $500 and $1,000. And most can't afford the 10-percent fee bail bondsmen require.

The result: These non-violent detainees - drunken drivers, public urinators and the like - fill up the cells at the Baltimore County Detention Center until their trials.

That's ridiculous.

The Kenilworth Avenue detention center is stuffed with 838 detainees - 60 more than it is designed to hold - on an average day.

They're packing three people into cells designed for two and having people sleep in hallways - a danger to everyone's safety.

The problem isn't space; it's what the county is doing with it. Before spending a lot of money on a new jail, county officials need to confront head-on how long they're holding nonviolent defendants.

County officials should be fully aware that they're releasing fewer defendants on their own recognizance than they were four years ago. The data is right there in a recently released study that calls for more jail construction.

In 1995, pretrial review handled 6,335 cases, of which 882 defendants were released. In 1999, the number had increased to 7,237, yet only 221 - one-quarter of the number four years earlier - were out in the community. That means more than 650 people - many charged with petty crimes - now spend as long as a month in jail before trial.

Instead of exploring this phenomenon, the study made a weak stab at explaining why more defendants must post bail. "The courts have seen more serious offenses over the past several years, so there are fewer eligible participants," it says.

Apparently the consultants didn't bother to consult the police department, whose statistics show arrests for violent crimes were lower in 1999 than they were in 1995, and appear to be trending downward.

Misdemeanor arrests, however, have climbed, and these are the defendants filling the jail to capacity. Sixty percent of the inmates in the jail are awaiting trial, according to Dorothy Williams, administrator of the county Bureau of Corrections. Of those, the majority are facing charges for nonviolent misdemeanors.

An afternoon at the Towson District Court provides prime examples of the problem.

Of the 13 defendants that appeared before Associate Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. on July 23 for bail reviews, only one was charged with a violent crime. Two were out-of-state fugitives whom county police had apprehended.

The remaining 10 were charged with nonviolent misdemeanors ranging from public intoxication to possession of drugs. Many had previous arrests or convictions for similar offenses.

Of this group only two were released: a woman who had received a non-criminal citation for child neglect but failed to appear for two hearings; and a man who turned himself in after finding out that a warrant had been issued after he failed to appear in a civil matter.

Judge Russell lowered the bails for most defendants, but the lowest bail was $1,000. That bail means the defendant would have to pay a bondsman at least $100.

No one had the money. So everyone but a patient from Spring Grove Hospital Center got sent back to a jail cell.

There is a better way to handle defendants facing these types of misdemeanor charges.

The county should provide them with legal representation at bail hearings. Not only will fewer of these people end up occupying cell space in the detention center, but the defendants will likely receive a higher quality of justice.

The evidence is clear. An 18-month study of Lawyers at Bail, a project that provided attorneys for indigent nonviolent defendants in Baltimore City, reduced the number of indigent misdemeanants that were jailed.

Those who had lawyers at their bail reviews were more than twice as likely to be released on their own recognizance. The study also showed that defendants with lawyers spent an average of two days in jail - compared with nine for those who didn't.

The cost of having a publicly paid lawyer and a small staff of pretrial investigators at bail reviews would probably cost the county about $500,000 a year.

Contrast that with the $94 million, two-phase, 20-year jail expansion proposed by the Carter Goble study. Which seems more sensible?

Building more cells is no more effective in solving the jail capacity problem than adding more lanes to the beltway has been in reducing traffic congestion.

The county should first develop a strategy to reduce the number of people languishing in the jail before it embarks on an expensive jail construction program.

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