Counsel for poor sought earlier in criminal process

January 10, 2009|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

A lawyer for poor defendants in Baltimore told Maryland's highest court yesterday that his clients and others like them are entitled to taxpayer-funded lawyers at bail hearings held within 24 hours of their arrest.

Should a majority of the court agree, the case would have wide-ranging consequences for the state's criminal justice system and require more public defenders, more space at central booking facilities statewide and more court commissioners, who are the first to set bail.

But the lawyer for the Baltimore firm arguing the class-action suit pro bono said that giving poor defendants counsel at "all stages" of the criminal justice process would save the state money because it would mean jailing fewer people.

Defendants represented at these early stages are "2 1/2 times more likely to be released, and their bond is 2 1/2 times higher if they don't have a lawyer," said Michael Schatzow of Venable LLP.

But Page Croyder, a former prosecutor who once led the team that made bail recommendations on violent offenders, said the change would create an "unbelievable burden" on the system and taxpayers.

Commissioners "already release a tremendous amount of people," Croyder said. "A great deal of people held on bail on minor charges are there because they failed to appear in court in another criminal matter."

In an unusual occurrence, all seven judges weighed in on the issue during yesterday's hearing, asking questions of Schatzow and Assistant Attorney General Kendra Y. Ausby. The judges' questions examined the legality of the proposal as much as the practical implications of creating a more adversarial bail system.

At least one of the judges acknowledged having little familiarity with the workings of a system that brings nearly 77,000 people annually through the city's crowded Central Booking and Intake Center, where they appear before a District Court commissioner to get their bail.

Commissioners, who are not lawyers, show defendants their charging documents for the first time. In a matter of minutes, they review the suspect's criminal history; warrant, probation and parole status; gather basic information about their employment and home; and set the bail.

University of Maryland law Professor Doug Colbert, who assisted with the case and has worked on bail reform issues, said that the lawsuit was for the two-thirds of suspects who are not veterans of the system. These people are "terrified," "emotionally shaken" and "traumatized" by their experiences in the city's overcrowded jail, he said.

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