Panel delivers harsh critique of bail system

Process is `inadequate, antiquated,' report says

`Needs some attention'

Judges performed audit

task force will be formed

October 28, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The Maryland judiciary released a report yesterday that is highly critical of the bail bond system, saying that there is a "potential threat to public safety" and a "general disrespect for laws and rules governing bail bonds."

In response to the report, Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has ordered a task force to recommend ways to improve the bail system, which the judiciary decried in its report as having become "inadequate and antiquated."

"We have identified lack of controls and procedures at each control point within the system," reads the internal audit, ordered by Bell and completed by the court.

Bail is a way for the court to ensure a person who has been arrested will show up for a trial date. Many defendants go to a bail bond company, which will post the bail money, typically for a fee that is 10 percent of the bail. If the defendant doesn't show up at trial, the bond firm owes the court the remainder of the bail, unless it can track down the defendant.

Criticized in the report is not only the bail bond industry, but also the court-supervised system that tracks the bonds.

"The state has depended on the honesty and good faith of bail bondsmen in the acceptance of bail bonds," the report says, "and has relied on inadequate and antiquated information systems for monitoring the bail bond process."

Bail issues were the source of debate during the 2002 General Assembly session, when there was a bill to largely circumvent bail bondsmen and instead have defendants post their bail to the courts.

The measure, which was supported by Bell, failed as many legislators said they did not want to radically alter the bail process.

University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken, who works as a consultant for the bondsmen, said the audit casts a stereotypical image of the bail bond industry.

"We have spent a long time getting rid of the perception of the bail bondsman with the stogie and the pinkie ring," Warnken said.

The report points to several problems in the bail industry. For instance, court procedure calls for a bondsman to be suspended if the court's computer system shows he or she owes money to the court because of an uncollected bond - but suspensions are a rarity.

One bondsman had 113 uncollected bonds and had not been suspended, according to the report.

"Court personnel do not have confidence in the reliability of the information, and are reluctant to take action to suspend," reads the audit.

Another problem detailed in the report is that there is little recordkeeping, and virtually no control over bonds posted with property.

For example, the court does not check to assess the value of a home posted as bail. That means that if a man is arrested and given a $100,000 bail, anyone willing to post their property to bail him out can do so, regardless of the value of the home.

The courts do not check whether the property is valued at $40,000 or $120,000.

More problems arise when people post their home several times, far surpassing the value of the property. Thus, if someone has a home valued at $40,000, the person could post the property for a relative who has a bail of $100,000, and another who has a bail of $50,000. There are few, if any, checks to catch that.

Complicating the matter further, if the defendant does not show up for his court date - meaning the home should be forfeited - there is no process to take the property.

"There's certainly some concerns about the ability to collect if someone forfeits," said Chief Judge of the District Court James N. Vaughan. "Everyone agrees it is not an effective process."

The state's attorney's office would be in charge of taking the home for forfeiture. Often times, the home belongs to an elderly relative of the defendant, who was not prepared to lose the property, said Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office

"Forfeitures have never been pursued," Burns said. "It's just a matter of good public policy. We see the homeowner as a victim."

Other problems with the bail system include tracking if, and when, a bond has been satisfied, according to the report. A manual check of paper files is needed to find out the status of a bond.

"There is no reliable judiciary-wide mechanism for identifying bonds that have been satisfied and released," reads the report. "Information ... in the mainframe system is not regularly and consistently updated."

Bell's taskforce will be led by Vaughan and Daniel M. Long, chairman of the Conference of Circuit Judges. The two will meet Nov. 17 to discuss the task force.

Other members will include judges, clerks, prosecutors, defense lawyers and representatives of the bail industry.

Vaughan said he wants to move quickly in case the recommendations would require changes by the legislature.

"This is something that has developed over the years and needs some attention," Vaughan said. "If we need legislative attention, I would like that to happen this year."

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