Bail reform supported by legal experts

But lobbyists say legislation would hurt bond industry

March 07, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A distinguished group of criminal justice experts came to Annapolis yesterday to urge passage of bail reform legislation that would allow defendants to get out of jail by paying the courts rather than bondsmen - a measure bondsmen say would decimate their industry.

At a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the two sides accused each other of spreading misinformation and of statistical sleights of hand.

Former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs described bondsmen as shadowy characters posing as "civil servants" before the General Assembly.

"It's only in fairy tales that frogs become princes," he said.

The reform advocates' rhetoric was matched by that of industry lobbyists.

"This is a get-out-of-jail-free card," said Ira C. Cooke, lobbyist for the Maryland Bail Bond Association.

University of Maryland law professor Byron L. Warnken, who is working for the bondsmen, called the proposal a "boondoggle waiting to happen," and said lawmakers would be making a "stupid decision" if they chose to take discretion on bail away from judges.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in yesterday's Maryland section about bail reform, the university affiliation of Byron L. Warnken was incorrectly reported. He is a law professor at the University of Baltimore. The Sun regrets the error.

The legislation would require judges to allow defendants to post bail bonds by paying a refundable, 10 percent deposit of the full bail amount with the court, along with a promise to pay the remainder if they skip their court date.

Bail bondsmen typically charge a 10 percent fee. So if a judge sets a $10,000 bail, the bill would allow the defendant to either pay $1,000 to the court, and potentially get it back, or pay a nonrefundable $1,000 fee to a bondsman.

Sen. Dolores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill in the Senate, worries that bondsmen have undue influence over who stays in jail.

The existing system enriches surety companies at the expense of the poor, "who are steered, somewhat mindlessly, to the commercial bondsmen," she said.

Although current law allows judges to use the 10 percent option, few do, said Special Appeals Judge Andrew L. Sonner after the hearing. "Many of the judges just find it easier to leave it to the bondsmen," he said.

Special Appeals Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., speaking for the judiciary, told lawmakers that judges would oppose the bill if it denied them the ability to use bondsmen.

"If I set a $250,000 bail on a drug dealer, I want full cash or corporate surety, because if he bolts, there should be 250,000 reasons to go get him," he said in an interview.

Kelley was joined yesterday by a prestigious panel, including E. Michael McCann, the Milwaukee district attorney who prosecuted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, and D. Alan Henry, executive director of the Washington-based Pretrial Services Resource Center.

"Your system is broken," Henry said.

Allowing defendants the refundable option will free up costly jail space, give them more incentive to come back to court, and remove commercial profit from the justice system, reformers argued.

Recent bail reform proposals have failed in the Assembly, often before they get to the House or Senate floor, and the bail industry has not even bothered to testify against such bills in the past.

However, the bail industry claims that if Kelley's bill succeeds, it will destroy the commercial bail business. To combat it, the normally low-profile Maryland Bail Bond Association has commissioned a report by Warnken, hired a public relations firm, had representatives go on radio talk shows and sent emissaries to high-level criminal justice meetings.

Yesterday, Cooke and Warnken said that if reformers get their way, more people will languish in jail, because bondsmen often allow defendants to pay in installments. And they warned that defendants will manipulate the system: Aware that police and prosecutors don't have the resources to track them down, they simply won't show up for court - a dangerous prospect for the public.

Contrary to reformers' statistics, bondsmen simply do a better job of making sure defendants appear in court, they said.

That point resonated with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, who attended the hearing. His skepticism about the bill is shared by Sen. Walter M. Baker, the Cecil County Democrat who is chairman of the judicial proceedings panel.

Baker said in an interview that if he were a judge and this law passed, he would simply increase bails to make sure defendants couldn't afford to get out of jail.

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