In Maryland: Bail reform efforts running headlong into industry opposition

Just days into the 2017 session of the Maryland General Assembly, a coalition of advocacy groups is warning that bail industry lobbying in the state could hamper passage of several planned measures to restrict or outright ban the use of money bail.

A report by Common Cause of Maryland released Thursday estimates that the state ranks third in the nation, behind California and Florida, in the amount of payments made by bail lobbyists to key legislators.

A series of reports by Injustice Watch have noted that thousands of people stay in custody across the country, awaiting trial, simply because they are too poor to post bail. Efforts to reform the system have been hampered by a series of obstacles.

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Injustice Watch reported in December that the bail bond industry has been a leading opponent to reform in many states; though Illinois is among the few states that have abandoned a system that relies on the bail bond industry.

Common Causes’ assessment was followed by a joint statement from four different non-profit groups and a Maryland law professor that the state’s voters should be “alarmed” by the influence of bail bondsmen.

For years, legislation to curtail the use of money bail in Maryland repeatedly has failed to win support and become law.

“The for-profit bail bond industry is using its money and influence in Annapolis to protect a failed money bail system that discriminates against poor and low income people, undermines public safety, and squanders taxpayer dollars,” the advocates said in a statement.

A number of legislators are currently preparing new bills that would restrict bail. Some tackle the pretrial structure, requiring assessments of the danger of the accused and his or her flight risk rather than an automatic use of money bail.

In October, State Attorney General Brian Frosh began a move with the Maryland judges to modify the rules on bail. That effort is underway.

Jeffrey J. Clayton, policy director for the American Bail Coalition, had earlier said that the bail industry would fight restrictions on bail in Maryland. But this week, Clayton appeared willing to moderate his view: “Yes, we are aware that the legislature in Maryland wants to eliminate all financial conditions of bail.  We believe there is a middle ground that can and should be found, rather than going to the extreme and trying to implement the Washington, D.C. or New Jersey model.”

The District of Columbia program that Clayton refers to abolished cash bail, releasing defendants unless they were deemed dangerous or likely to flee. The district provides extensive pretrial services to then ensure those who are released show up for their court appearances. New Jersey’s new bail program similarly emphasizes pretrial screening and a preference for release.

Maryland Delegate Kathleen Dumais intends to co-sponsor legislation to expand pre-trial services to all jurisdictions in the state. Currently, only 13 have it.

“When 65 percent of the inmates are being held pre-trial, something is wrong,” Dumais said in an interview.

On the Common Cause report, Dumais noted it reflects the problems associated with how campaigns are financed, rather than just how special interest groups engineer influence.

“I am not convinced that just because someone accepts money from a particular industry that means their vote is being bought,” she said. “All of that being said, the bail bond industry … in part because of relationships … has a lot of access to members of the legislature.”

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, said she suspects that the battle in the legislature over bail will be “a challenge.”

“There’s no question that the close ties between the for-profit, bail bond industry and politicians have stymied improvement efforts in other states that would have saved taxpayer money and made our communities safer,” she told Injustice Watch. “The perpetuation of a money bond system isn’t in the best interest of Marylanders — it’s simply maintaining or deepening racial and economic disparity for the profit of one industry.”

According to the Common Cause report, Maryland ranked third in the country with elected officials receiving $288,550 from bail lobbyists since 2011. State Senator Bobby Zirkin and Delegate Joseph Vallario were the second and third highest recipients nationwide with $78,200 and $45,500 respectively.

Zirkin, chairman of the Senate’s Judicial Proceeding Committee, and Vallario, chairman of the House’s Judiciary Committee, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Those two committees handle legislation on the criminal justice system, including bills affecting the bail industry.