House panel considers requiring state to provide lawyers for poor at bail review

Passed by Senate, bill has been killed yearly in Judiciary Committee

April 04, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Two of Maryland's top judges made a show of support yesterday for a bill that would require the state to provide lawyers for poor people when they appear for bail hearings.

Neither, however, got a chance to speak.

It is a tradition in the General Assembly at this late date to restrict testimony to the legislator who sponsored a bill. That tradition was evident yesterday as Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals and Judge Martha F. Rasin, chief of the state's District Court, flanked Sen. Leo E. Green at the witness table before the House Judiciary Committee.

Though Green referred to the judges as "two powerful voices," neither got to say a word.

Still, Green hoped their appearance might build support for the bill in the House committee -- where similar legislation has repeatedly failed over the years. The measure was approved by the Senate, 40-7.

Bell said afterward that he has backed the legislation for several years, particularly because attorneys would be able to give judges additional information about the defendants. "It's obvious," Bell said, "if we can get more information before our judges we can process the cases better."

Rasin, who offered written testimony, said defendants need lawyers to help them make "informed choices" early in the judicial process.

Other supporters of the bill say providing an attorney is not just a matter of basic fairness, but also can save taxpayers money: Studies have shown that people with lawyers are more likely to have their bail reduced or waived for minor crimes, sparing them days or weeks in jail.

The measure's supporters have fought a long losing campaign. The bill has failed in each of the past three legislative sessions. Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has said he doesn't see a need for the bill.

Poor defendants now are represented by lawyers in Baltimore City and in Harford, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.

Green, a Prince George's Democrat, said that shows an unequal justice system prevails in Maryland.

The public defender's office reviewed more than 6,600 cases at the Baltimore Detention Center last year and found that more than half the people represented by lawyers were given pretrial release.

The Lawyers at Bail project ran an 18-month program at the city jail, representing people who had been charged with nonviolent offenses. That study found that those who were represented spent five fewer days behind bars. The report also found that representing everyone could save $4.5 million.

Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland professor who worked on the project, said he hopes the Judiciary Committee at least votes on the bill.

"I think our democratic system requires that an elective body be given the opportunity to vote," said Colbert. "Anything less than a vote represents a blot on the democratic process."

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