Bail bondsmen argue against reform effort

Their report contradicts studies backing changes to pretrial procedures

February 28, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In their most aggressive attack yet on proposed bail reform legislation, members of Maryland's bail bond industry released a report yesterday arguing that changes to the state's system would cost taxpayers money and present a danger to the citizenry.

The report, written by University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken and paid for by the Maryland Bail Bond Association, runs contrary to recent studies recommending reforms of Maryland's system of pretrial defendant release.

The new study, the centerpiece of the industry's lobbying campaign, comes as lawmakers are considering three bills that would damage the bail industry's profits. In addition, the Court of Appeals is considering altering the way judges set bails.

Warnken's report claims that corporate bonds written by bail bondsmen are the most effective means of ensuring a defendant shows up for court, and advocates expanding the bail bond industry in Maryland.

For the first time, the bail association, which includes Maryland's largest surety company, Lexington National Insurance Corp. in Baltimore, has hired a public relations firm to help broadcast its message. The firm is distributing the report to General Assembly leaders, members of five legislative committees and to judges across the state.

"What we are responding to is that it has become clear that there are well-funded advocacy groups that know very little about the criminal justice system in general, and about the bail system in particular, and these people are attempting to mold public opinion away from bail," Ira C. Cooke, the bail association's lobbyist in Annapolis.

Three bail-related bills will have a Senate hearing next week. Bondsmen and insurance executives are especially wary of a proposal -- backed by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- that would require judges to offer defendants the option of paying 10 percent of their bail directly to the court, which refunds the money if they show up. Defendants who use a bail bondsman to get out of jail must pay a nonrefundable 10 percent fee.

Another bill would require poor defendants to be represented at bail review hearings by public defenders, who would argue for more lenient pretrial release terms. The third measure would require bondsmen working in Baltimore to be licensed there and to pay the city a monthly fee based on how much business they do.

Much of Warnken's report is dedicated to rebutting research by another law professor, Douglas L. Colbert, of the University of Maryland -- research Warnken calls "incomplete and erroneous."

Colbert, a longtime bail reform proponent, worked on two recent studies, one funded by the Abell Foundation and one prepared for the Court of Appeals, that recommended expanding the state's pretrial release services, offering lawyers for poor defendants at bail review hearings, and increasing judges' use of nonmonetary bails.

Those recommendations, in whole or in part, are backed by the Maryland State Bar Association and by a University of Maryland study released this week about Baltimore's pretrial release system. The new body of research represents perhaps the most widespread support the state has seen for bail reform.

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