Legislative hostage taking

Legislative hostage taking

Annapolis: Will Maryland's bail bond industry again kill a bill that nobody opposes openly?

January 29, 2001

IF A BILL is introduced and triggers no opposition, it's headed for passage. Right?

Wrong.

Powerful special interests can still kill reform legislation by making sure it never emerges from committee.

This is exactly what has happened three years in a row with important laws about bail representation. The bail bonds industry has squashed bills that would have saved Maryland taxpayers millions of dollars by reducing unnecessary pre-trial incarceration.

Currently, indigent offenders in only Baltimore City, Montgomery, Harford and Anne Arundel counties have access to public defenders at bail review hearings. Representation is not available in the other 21 counties, creating a disparity that clashes with the U.S. Constitution's equal protection requirement.

Extending public defender representation to those other counties would cost an estimated $900,000, an amount that would be more than covered through savings in pre-trial jail costs.

What makes all this so intriguing is that when reform bills were discussed publicly in previous years, no one opposed them. Instead, the bail bonds interests and some lawyers cashed their IOUs for campaign contributions and lobbied behind the scenes.

The result: While a Senate bill won overwhelming committee support, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee never brought the companion measure to a vote.

This year, Senate Bill 78 tries to secure legal representation to indigent defendants during bail review hearings so that fewer suspects would be jailed simply because of their inability to make a $100 to $1,000 bail. Huge cost savings would accrue because many indigents end up in jail for 30 days or more just waiting for the initial hearing.

The bail bonds lobby is against reforms that would spring more defendants from lengthy pretrial incarceration. Because it fears any changes would hurt their lucrative bail-bond franchise.

Some self-seeking lawyers agree, even though the lawyers-at-bail idea has the support of the bar associations.

This kind of legislative hostage-taking is outrageous. Even more deplorable is legislators' willingness to serve as accomplices in this loathsome special-interest ruse.

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