County jail officials push for video bail hearings

But Towson residents worry about influx of suspects

January 26, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun reporter

Baltimore County jail officials plan to institute video conferencing for bail review hearings, saying the technology would save money and police officers' time.

The plan has stirred concerns among residents in Towson, who worry that more inmates who post bail would be released from the main detention center in their community instead of from police precincts throughout the county.

Currently, many inmates are transported from the county Detention Center in Towson to district courts in Essex and Catonsville to appear before judges for bail reviews.

With video conferencing, the inmates would sit before a camera in Towson, and their images would be projected in courtrooms as judges reviewed their bails.

"It's just safer to walk them down the hallway in the jail, and they never leave the confines of our secure institution for these hearings," said James P. O'Neill, director of the county Bureau of Corrections.

O'Neill has been working with police officials on details of the plan, which would be presented to County Executive James T. Smith Jr. for approval.

Administrative judges from the district and circuit courts also would have to approve the change.

Mike Ertel, a community activist in Towson, said he fears that the new plan would lead to twice as many inmates being released on bail from the main Detention Center than under the current system.

"You're taking three release points and making them all one," said Ertel, adding that many inmates could be released far from their homes. "It's not really that they're dangerous. We're not saying that they get out of jail and hold up a bank. But what they are doing is they're bugging people for money or cigarettes. There's just always some nuisance issue."

He said he wants the county to find a way to transport inmates from the Detention Center to areas near the homes.

The center provides bus tokens to inmates, officials said. And O'Neill said that the new plan would not lead to a big increase in the number of inmates being released from Towson.

T. Wray McCurdy, a criminal defense lawyer, echoing some of Ertel's concerns, said after a hearing before state senators from Baltimore County last week in Annapolis that detention center officials are not considering all of the implications of the plan.

"Anybody that it impacts has been left out of the debate - the citizens, the arrestees," he said.

Detention Center officials say they plan to meet with nearby residents to discuss the plan.

Meg Ferguson, Smith's criminal justice coordinator, said the project would likely require the installation of about a half-dozen cameras - one at each court building and one or more at the detention center in Towson.

District Court buildings also would have to be wired for the technology. Ferguson could not provide a cost estimate for the project.

But officials say the change to video conferencing - which is used in many jurisdictions in the region - would save money in the long run.

People arrested now appear before a District Court commissioner in Towson, Catonsville or Essex - whichever is closer to the police precinct where they were taken after arrest. If they are denied bail or if they cannot post bail set by the court commissioner, they are taken to the Detention Center.

The next business day, they are transported by police officers or county-hired security officers to district courts to appear before a judge for a more exhaustive bail review.

Under the new plan, which officials hope to have in place by the spring, the expense of transporting them would be eliminated. And police officers at precincts would be faced with fewer inmates to monitor, officials said.

"This is all about keeping our police officers on the streets," Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan told county state senators at the Annapolis hearing last week.

Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for Smith, said the county executive also likes the idea.

"It doesn't make sense to be housing inmates at the 10 precincts all across the county sometimes for as long as three days, four days," Mohler said. "We also think that this proposal will allow us to get more police officers on the street and get them out of the taxicab business, so to speak."

State Sen. James Brochin said he wants the county administration to include residents in the project's planning.

"They want their concerns heard," the Towson Democrat said last week in Annapolis. "When this hearing is over, they want to be sitting at the table."

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