Veto the bail bill

May 11, 2004

THERE'S A REASON a bail-mobile parks at Guilford Avenue and Madison Street downtown -- access, access, access. The RV-sized bail office on wheels is within footsteps of the complex where people charged with a crime in Baltimore appear for the purposes of bail.

Bail bondsmen make their living off those who want to stay out of jail; their services are needed. But legislation before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would help them retain a portion of that business at a defendant's expense. Mr. Ehrlich should veto this bill, which seeks to abolish a reform-minded requirement to notify defendants of the option to pay 10 percent of their bail in cash instead of going through a bail bondsman. This is one for the little guy -- it's that simple.

The notification requirement applies only in cases where bail has been set at $2,500 or less (typical for a case involving a minor crime). If the defendant who chooses the cash option shows up for court, he gets his money back. That's real money in his pocket. Defendants who rely on a licensed bail bondsman to cover their bail don't get their 10 percent back -- even if they're found not guilty. That's the cost of doing business with a bondsman.

Supporters of the rule defend it as a bail reform intended to make it easier and less costly for defendants charged with minor crimes to get out of jail. The rule doesn't mandate a cash option -- it seeks to ensure that court commissioners and judges tell a defendant of the cash option.

The court rule on notification took effect in January, and within weeks the bail bond industry was lobbying for its removal. A lobbyist for the bail bondsmen came armed with data, claiming a higher rate of court appearances by their clients. But the reformers say court data show that in 24 of 33 judicial districts, people who put up a cash bond had a better appearance rate than bonded defendants.

Whom should Marylanders believe? The bail bond system has come under attack in recent years. A court-ordered audit last year found numerous problems in its operation. In response to the audit, the state's chief judge established a task force to review the system and recommend changes, including ways to improve the collection of bonds set for people who failed to appear. But the task force hasn't weighed in on the debate over the cash option, reformers say. Why not?

That's one more reason that we believe the governor should veto this bill: Let this year's experience with the notification rule determine whether any change needs to be made. Change shouldn't come at the insistence of an industry with the financial means to oppose reform.

To that end, the judiciary should prepare a comprehensive report before the 2005 Maryland General Assembly convenes comparing the failure-to-appear rates of defendants who use a bail bondsman and those who post the cash option. If the facts support the bail industry's contention, bondsmen will have plenty of time to resubmit a bill to wipe out the rules change. But until then, the court rule to notify defendants of the cash option should remain.

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