Equal justice for poor lacking at bail hearings

Lawyers: With bill blocked, governor should step in to ensure attorneys for indigent defendants.

April 10, 2001

AS THE Maryland General Assembly wrapped up its 2001 session last night, it did so without mandating justice and fairness for poor people arrested on minor offenses.

Obstructionist legislators, egged on by the bail-bond industry, don't like the idea of guaranteeing poor defendants a public defender at bail hearings.

So for the fourth year in a row, they used any excuse they could latch onto to bury this measure.

That undermines Maryland's criminal-justice system and the belief in equal justice under the law.

It's a ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars and a blow to basic human fairness, but economic special interests matter more to leaders of the House Judiciary Committee.

Some way must be found to make sure everyone arrested has access to a lawyer for bail hearings.

The state's top judges want such a law. So do the state's public defenders. It's a money-saver and a way to help unclog the courts.

Public defenders already represent defendants at bail hearings in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Harford and Montgomery counties. Why should poor people in other counties be discriminated against?

In just five months last year, the state's public defenders handled 6,602 bail cases. More than half of the defendants were released instead of remaining in jail. And a project sponsored by the Abell Foundation found that having lawyers at bail hearings cuts an average of five days off jail time, with an annual savings of $4.5 million.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening should step in and pledge money for more public defenders in his 2002 budget so that all poor people arrested for minor offenses have a lawyer at their side for bail hearings.

The amount needed is relatively small -- about $900,000. Far more than that would be saved by state and local governments.

The governor has spoken up for civil-rights issues in the just-concluded General Assembly session. He should continue his crusade with strong support for legal representation at bail hearings in his next budget submission.

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