Reforms in bail system recommended to courts

Statewide pretrial agency needed, expert panel says

October 12, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A dozen legal experts have recommended that the state's highest judge seek far-reaching reforms in Maryland's system for determining bail amounts for inmates awaiting trial.

In a report released yesterday, a committee formed by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell proposed changes that include making sure every defendant is represented by a lawyer when he or she goes before a judge for a bail review hearing - an idea lawmakers have tried for years to push through the General Assembly without success.

The committee, which included prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, recommended creating a statewide pretrial release agency to provide and verify information about defendants to judges and commissioners who determine bail.

Pretrial release staff would monitor defendants awaiting trial and would keep in touch with victims. Pretrial release services now vary across the state; some counties don't have such services.

In addition, the committee suggested changing court rules to make it clear that "the use of monetary bail should be sparing." The report said the rules should encourage judges and bail commissioners to first consider alternatives before they decide on secured collateral bonds, which require nonrefundable down payments to bail bondsmen.

If approved by Bell, the recommendations - which take no position on who should pay for the changes - could become a powerful force for reform. Through a spokeswoman, Bell said yesterday that he would review the report and ask Court of Appeals standing committees to develop specific changes to court rules or come up with relevant legislative proposals.

"It sends a very powerful message to all branches of government that there's a problem here and we want to address it," said Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who has studied Maryland's bail practices and who served on the committee.

If Bell takes the recommendations seriously, the result could be more successful than seeking such reform through the General Assembly, Colbert said.

The state's bail-bond industry did not participate in the 14-month study. Brian J. Frank, president of Lexington National Insurance Corp., a major surety company in Baltimore, said he wanted to address the committee but was not invited.

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