Bail bonds' biases show

Costs: The current system unfairly punishes the poor and places a burden on taxpayers.

January 20, 2002|By Stephen H. Sachs | Stephen H. Sachs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Maryland's multimillion-dollar bail bond industry - which depends for its profits on the premiums it charges to post bonds for arrestees awaiting trial - is striking back at its growing number of critics.

At a recent Court of Appeals rules committee hearing, its principal target was a September report by the Abell Foundation. The Abell report exposed injustices in the present system and proposed reforms that threaten the industry's bottom line. Industry lobbyists are circling the wagons. They promise another salvo shortly.

The bondsmen's public relations offensive, however, cannot mask this truth: Thousands of pretrial detainees in Maryland are unnecessarily warehoused - at enormous public expense - simply because they are poor. The sole beneficiary of this malfunctioning system is the bail bondsman.

The present system is unfair, expensive and dangerous.

The biggest losers are those in jail awaiting trial who pose no danger and little risk of flight. They endure their presumption of innocence behind bars because they cannot afford to pay a bondsman to bail them out. The law provides ways to remove this weight of poverty from the scales of justice. But the courts rarely use them.

Maryland taxpayers also lose big. Baltimore corrections officials say it costs about $55 a day to house and feed a pretrial detainee, who, on average, will remain in custody for well over 30 days. According to Public Safety Commissioner LaMont W. Flanagan, more than 600 pretrial detainees were held in Baltimore every day last week on bail bonds set at $5,000 or less.

The great majority face nonviolent misdemeanor charges ranging from drug possession to traffic offenses. Most will never be required to stand trial, much less found guilty. They are held at the taxpayer's expense because they can't afford nonrefundable bond premiums of $100 to $500. The annual taxpayer tab for this human storage exceeds $10 million. In varying degrees, many Maryland counties reflect similar conditions.

There are other losses. Unnecessary detention clogs the state's local jails. It accelerates the pressure for new jail construction, such as the $70 million price tag on Baltimore County's expanded detention center.

Overcrowding also spawns violence. It multiplies the hazards already faced by correctional officers. They should be free to monitor and control the conduct of detainees charged with violent crimes whose bails, properly, have been refused or set prohibitively high. These are the dangerous suspects.

The winners in this badly flawed system are the professional bail bondsmen. They sell freedom.

Courts order full financial bond - the kind sold by bail bondsmen - for almost half the state's arrestees.

A defendant who owns property or has ready cash - a drug dealer, for example - can probably post a full financial bond. He certainly will have no trouble satisfying the 10 percent nonrefundable premium the bail bondsman charges. But thousands of less "affluent" detainees can't pay that premium. They remain locked up even though the vast majority of those with bonds of $5,000 or less could be released safely.

The system is not supposed to work this way. Unless a detainee is charged with a most serious crime, Maryland's judicial rules require that "the least onerous" release conditions be set.

One of those "least onerous" conditions is the posting of an unsecured bond, effectively a promissory note. Another is the posting of a full bond - with the important proviso that only 10 percent of its face amount be deposited with the court and that the defendant gets his money back if he shows up for trial. Both of these conditions deprive the bondsman of his fee.

More important, these "least onerous" conditions of release may make it possible for the arrestee to hold or find a job, pay the rent and utility bills, buy food, get drug treatment, help prepare a defense - keep a family together, while awaiting trial.

No one suggests that every detainee is a model citizen. Nor is it certain that every detainee, or his family, could afford even the refundable premium. But many could. They should at least be given the opportunity. They are, after all, presumed innocent. The current system is a form of pretrial sanction reserved exclusively for the poor.

In Maryland, commissioners and judges routinely ignore the unsecured bond or refund options. The two-year Abell Foundation study found that judicial officers ordered full bond - the most onerous condition - for more than 93 percent of detainees not released on recognizance. Only 4 percent of Maryland detainees gained release by signing an unsecured bond and even fewer were permitted to post a 10 percent refundable cash deposit.

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