Serving jail time for lack of money

Maryland: Bail reform could benefit taxpayers by reducing needless pretrial incarceration.

October 28, 2001

ON ANY given day, one-third of the more than 2,000 men and women being held before trial in Baltimore's jail are there simply because they cannot cough up $500 or less for bail.

"There are far too many people in pretrial detention in Baltimore City who have inappropriate bails," says corrections department spokesman Leonard A. Sipes Jr.

Defendants detained on relatively trivial charges cause such serious overcrowding at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center that inmates routinely sleep on the gym floor and in other make-shift spaces.

They may languish in jail 30 days or longer -- at a cost of $54 a day to the taxpayers for room and board. But that figure can be misleading; the price is often drastically higher because many defendants accused of minor offenses have acute medical problems that require expensive treatment during long pretrial detention.

Yet once those defendants see a judge, most are found not guilty.

From the taxpayers' viewpoint, this expensive warehousing of pretrial defendants makes no sense. Unless the problem is resolved, the state will have to spend tens of millions of dollars to construct additional jail space.

Economics aside, long and arbitrary pretrial incarceration is an outrage in a society that professes to hold defendants innocent until proved guilty. There is something fundamentally wrong about selling defendants their freedom, but leaving those too poor to pay rotting in jail cells.

And the longer indigent pretrial defendants are kept locked up, the more vulnerable they become. Imprisoned breadwinners may lose jobs and their families face eviction and other hardships.

This quandary exists throughout the state. It's particularly acute in Baltimore.

Bail commissioners and judges in the city release some 60 percent of the arrestees on personal recognizance, usually basing their decisions on a defendant's appearance and largely unverified background information. However, 98 percent of the rest are ordered to pay full financial bond for their release.

Family members, friends or employers wanting to free such defendants have to resort to commercial bail bond firms. They are easy to find. Their neon signs beckon in the city's slums. Some even operate from liquor stores. "We put you back on the road to freedom," one company promises in the Yellow Pages, where their ads fill pages. "We never close," pledges another.

Those agencies typically demand a fee equaling 10 percent of the bail. Whoever posts it can kiss the money goodbye. None of it will be returned even if the defendant fulfills all trial appearance obligations. Instead, the money is split between a local bail bond issuer and its backer, one of many nationwide insurance companies involved in what is estimated to be a $100-million-a-year industry in Maryland.

Is there a better way? Two recent reports argue there is. They urge Maryland to:

Limit the pivotal role of commercial bail bond firms. Instead, defendants should be given the option of paying a 10 percent cash bond to the court, which would be returned after the defendant appeared for trial.

Give pretrial legal representation to all criminal defendants. That way, bail commissioners and judges could more accurately determine whether a financial bail is really needed to secure the defendant's appearance at trial.

One of these reports was issued by the Abell Foundation; the other came from legal experts advising Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

Amid the turmoil since Sept. 11, neither report attracted much media attention.

But Maryland's powerful bail bond lobby wasted no time in launching a counterattack. Its lucrative franchise would be threatened if defendants were allowed to bypass bail bond services and make refundable deposits directly to courts.

The bail bond lobby hired a University of Baltimore law professor to punch holes into the research and arguments of University of Maryland professor Douglas L. Colbert, who prepared the Abell study and acted as an adviser to Judge Bell's committee.

Debate, though, is not enough. Maryland's pretrial and bail system needs an overhaul.

Changes will not be easy to achieve, though, because of the bail bond lobby's and trial lawyers' hold on the General Assembly in Annapolis.

The report of Judge Bell's advisory committee underscores that very point. It chronicles the numerous previous attempts at legislative reform of the system. Those initiatives came to nothing because of self-serving opposition from special interest groups.

Those groups' clout extends beyond their ability to stop proposed legislation from even reaching a vote.

Consider this: Nothing in Maryland's current law prohibits defendants from making direct bonding arrangements with state courts. Except that court commissioners and judges allow that only in exceptional circumstances. In other words, they are in cahoots with bail bond firms.

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