High cost of pretrial jailing

Incarceration alternatives are often better for defendants, taxpayers

November 24, 2009|By Portia Wood and Dave Pantzer

Eighteen days after his marijuana-possession arrest, one of our clients, a 25-year-old Baltimore man, remained in jail at taxpayer expense. The defendant, a veteran of the war in Iraq, never failed to appear in court and had only one previous conviction for using marijuana, which resulted in his current probation. But he was still incarcerated at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center, simply because he could not afford his $1,000 bail.

Maintaining a pretrial jail population is costly. Budget estimates from the Department of Public Safety show that it costs an average of $114 daily, or nearly $3,500 monthly, for a city jail to keep one person in custody. A 2009 Pew report indicates that incarceration costs 10 times more than probation. For those - like Mr. Jones - charged with nonviolent crimes and detained because they lack $100 to $1,000, supervision is far more cost-efficient.

As students at the University of Maryland School of Law, supervised and certified to practice, we represented Mr. Jones and 22 other clients held in jail on nonviolent charges. The others included a 20-year-old charged with drug possession who spent 14 days in jail, at taxpayer expense of $1,596, despite no prior convictions; and a 63-year old husband charged with public urination, who remained incarcerated for nine days, costing $1,026, because he missed court and could not make the $100 bail.

Many arrestees cannot afford bail. City defendants typically spend 39 days away from home, family and jobs, which equals approximately $4,446 per person. In many cases, they pose little or no risk to the public. If only 300 people - one tenth of Baltimore's pretrial population - were supervised instead of incarcerated, the savings would be roughly $800,000 a month, or $10 million per year. Even accounting for fixed costs, the savings statewide would be substantial.

Such savings are critical in this time of economic crisis, when money is scarce and funding is being scaled away from schools, police and firefighters. Just last week, the governor announced another round of budget cuts and worker layoffs.

Maryland law entitles an accused person to release, except when it appears clear the person is a flight risk or a danger to others. Commissioners and judges may condition release on bail, but as a unanimous Supreme Court declared, it must be "reasonably calculated." While considering a person's criminal past, they also must consider available information about a person's financial resources, residence, family ties and employment.

After observing numerous bail hearings in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, we noticed that judicial officers often lacked important background information to make informed decisions. Pretrial reports to judges were less complete than in our cases, and commissioners received none. In Baltimore County, public defenders were not present when clients appeared before a commissioner or a reviewing judge. City defendants usually had a defender for bail review, but caseloads and time constraints made thorough investigation unlikely.

Ensuring judicial officers have verified information about each relevant aspect of a suspect's situation will result in fewer costly incarcerations and more opportunities for pretrial supervision - the option that best protects the individual and the state's budget. Investing in pretrial investigation and public defender representation early in the process would result in significant cost savings.

With public defender support, we conducted investigations that verified our clients' living situations and family ties. We confirmed that many were employed, in school or cared for dependents. With this reliable information, a pretrial investigator frequently made favorable recommendations to the judge. In court, we advocated for release and affordable bail. Judges considered both pretrial investigator's information and ours. They usually agreed that alternatives to pretrial incarceration were appropriate.

When we suggested a residential treatment program for those with addictions, judges were receptive. When we introduced family members, they viewed supervised release as more reasonable.

The 25-year-old man jailed for 18 days for lack of $1,000 bail was neither a menace nor a flight risk. With pretrial monitoring, he and all of our clients returned to court. There, the state dismissed his case.

As students of the law, we are interested in enhancing Maryland's administration of pretrial justice. We aim for a system that protects individuals' liberty, public safety and judicial economy, while promoting taxpayers' interests. We all have a responsibility to ensure our dollars are spent in the most efficient and just manner.

Let's invest our dollars in pretrial supervision rather than unnecessary pretrial incarceration of people accused of nonviolent offenses.

Portia Wood (pwood004@umary land.edu) and Dave Pantzer ( dpant001@umaryland.edu) are University of Maryland law students who participate in the Access to Justice clinic. Their fellow students Kimberly Stewart and Tony Torain contributed to this article.

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