Senate panel kills bill on bail reform

Measure to assist defendants would cost bail bond industry

`If it ain't broke ...'

Judges can offer to let people pay the courts instead but seldom do

March 09, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A state Senate committee killed a bail reform measure yesterday that would have allowed defendants to pay courts rather than bail bondsmen to get out of jail.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said after the 7-2 vote.

"The purpose of bail is to assure the appearance of the defendant in court," he added. "If we pass this bill, we are saying to the court: `The General Assembly knows more about this case than you do, therefore we're going to impose this on you.'"

Bail reform advocates lobbied hard for the bill, bringing to Annapolis this week some of the state's most distinguished criminal justice experts - and even flying in bail reform advocates from Wisconsin, one of a handful of states that have outlawed commercial bail.

Their effort was matched by the bail bond industry, which considers the bill an assault on its profits. Bondsmen, led by Lexington National Insurance Corp. in Baltimore, launched an expensive campaign to defeat it.

Sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, the measure would have required judges to allow defendants to pay 10 percent of their full bail amount to the court, along with a promise to pay the remainder if they skipped their court date.

That 10 percent would be refundable, as opposed to the nonrefundable 10 percent fee that bondsmen charge.

Under current law, judges are allowed but not required to offer defendants that option. They do so infrequently, court officials have said.

Pros and cons

Some of the state's leading judges, including Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, favor increased use of 10 percent deposits.

A Court of Appeals committee is considering changing judicial rules to emphasize that judges should consider alternatives to financial bails backed by bondsmen.

But the judiciary is wary of losing the ability to require a bondsman in certain cases - a reluctance shared by some lawmakers.

Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat who voted to kill the bill, said judges can offer the refundable option if they choose. He added that he might have supported the bill if more of his colleagues had done so.

Mitchell, a former bondsman who recently disclosed that he sought a $10,000 loan from the owner of a bond business in 1997, said he prefers a bill that would require public defenders to represent poor defendants at bail reviews.

Proponents of that legislation say lawyers would get more defendants released on lower bails, or without bail.

That proposal was approved by the Senate last year, but died in the House.

It is expected to come up for a vote again this session, but supporters worry that it will fail again unless money is attached to it to pay for more public defenders - an unlikely scenario given the current budget crunch.

`A fair chance'

"You're talking about giving poor people a fair chance," said Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat.

His was one of two yes votes yesterday on the 10 percent bail bill.

"If we can't get the public defender bill through, this seemed to me the second-best thing," he said.

Kelley and the proposal's House sponsor, Del. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, say they intend to try again next year, and plan to be better armed for the inevitable fight with the bond industry.

"There's just a very strong pro-bail bondsman stance here," Kelley said. "It's the way they've always done things in this General Assembly, and they find it traumatic to do things differently.

"This won't be the end of it," she said. "Elections are coming, and maybe some votes will change on this. We'll keep educating people."

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