BALTIMORE — Thousands of people go through the criminal justice system every year, and Robert Weisengoff’s office in Baltimore plays a big part in making sure people show up at their trials.
Weisengoff heads the Pretrial Release Services Program Baltimore division, which is part of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. His agency can assign defendants to a menu of supervision services between the bail review hearing and a trial.
The services can include drug and alcohol addiction treatment or drug testing. Weisengoff’s office can also assign a defendant to community service or move a defendant’s case to mental health court. Or, the office can do something as simple as text clients to remind them about their court date or other appointments.
“We’re like the Swiss army knife of the criminal justice system,” Weisengoff said.
It’s a system that proponents say is working. According to a 2017 report by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, 93 percent of people enrolled in a pretrial program in Baltimore City appeared for their court date and 97 percent were not rearrested while awaiting trial.
Similar numbers were reported in Montgomery County, where 96 percent of people enrolled in a program showed up for their trial and 97.6 percent were not rearrested.
The Baltimore office introduced texting last year, and Weisengoff said it finally brought his department into the 21st century. He said trial appearance rates are higher than ever, and that data show the number of calls to defendants in Baltimore County dropped dramatically after the county began texting.
Texting defendants, Weisengoff said, “is one of the best things that ever happened to us.”
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh agrees. He said that texting is the cheapest way to get people to show up for their court dates. “They did it in Colorado. The FTA [failure to appear] rate dropped from 21 to 12 percent,” Frosh said. “There are lots of things that can be done to get people to show up.”
Enrolling someone in pretrial services is also much less expensive than holding him or her in jail. Tara Huffman, the director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program at the Open Society Institute’s Baltimore office, said it costs $159 a day to hold someone in jail in Baltimore compared to just $2.50 a day to have someone enrolled in pretrial supervision.
Even with this success in Baltimore, some feel there is still a long way to go before the state uses pretrial services to its full potential. Robert C. Embry Jr., the president of the Abell Foundation, wants to do away with bail completely. But he doesn’t think pretrial offices around the state are prepared for that.
Maryland passed laws in 2017 to dramatically reduce the use of cash bail, but judges have responded by holding more people without bail, according to data from the Maryland Judiciary.
Judges usually hold someone without bail if they think the defendant is a flight risk or dangerous. So the judge keeps the defendant in jail without allowing him or her to post money to be released. Since bail reform, judges have more often been denying bail to people who may have been offered cash bail under the previous system, court data show.
“If we did away with bail totally...then the pretrial office would not have the capacity to deal with that number without additional money from the state,” Embry said. In 2014, a commission appointed by then Gov. Martin O’Malley made 14 recommendations on improving pretrial services throughout the state. These included creating programs in all 24 state jurisdictions and using a uniform risk algorithm that determines whether defendants should get pretrial supervision or other alternatives.
This algorithm — which is a questionnaire that asks for details about the person who has been arrested, including any criminal record, employment and previous failures to appear for trial — is used in an initial interview before the defendant attends a bail review hearing. The judge then makes a decision on bail based in part on information from this algorithm.
The algorithm helps the agent make a recommendation to the judge on what the defendant should have to do before trial. That can include holding the person in jail, releasing him on bail, assigning him to pretrial supervision, or just letting him go home and appear back in court for trial.
But some of the recommendations made by the commission haven’t been fully implemented. In 2014, only 11 of 24 jurisdictions had pretrial service programs and just five used a risk algorithm. Four years later, every county still does not use a risk-assessment algorithm, and some do not have pretrial service programs.
“Some jurisdictions in Maryland and some across the nation have evolved to provide pretrial services while others have sort of clung to the old system that they’re used to, pretty much led by the belief that there’s nothing wrong with the system,” Huffman, of the Open Society Institute, said.
Wendell France, former executive director of the Central Region of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, was a member of the O’Malley commission. He said the commission was a promising start but is disappointed that nothing has been done since.
“We did a great deal of work. It went nowhere,” France said. “We thought we had moved the ball forward. We thought that was the beginning.”
Embry said that organizations advocating for expanded pretrial service options are mostly nonprofits, while places like the bail-bonds industry have lobbyists and can make contributions to political campaigns.
A 2017 Common Cause report found that during the previous campaign cycle, Maryland political candidates accepted the third largest amount of money from the bail bonds industry of any state, trailing only California and Florida.
Huffman added that some judges have long been familiar with the bail bondsmen system and know more about how bail works than pretrial service. She said that those judges think bail gives people a concrete reason to return to court.
“The phrase that you’ll hear is ‘skin in the game,’ ” Huffman said. “They believe that people have skin in the game, that it will literally cost them something not to show up for court. They don’t think that your word and the threat of incarceration without something else is enough.”
But it may be simpler than that. People just don’t like change.
“Even when people admit there’s a problem it’s very difficult to change behavior,” she said. “Unfortunately the criminal justice system is running [on] automatic and those trying to reform it are struggling uphill. It’s going to take long time and a lot of force and momentum.”