Chief Md. District Court Judge Cautions Judges on How They Set Bail

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The top judge in the District Court of Maryland appears to agree with Attorney General Brian Frosh in his argument that setting bail unreachably high for defendants is wrong.

The Sun reports that District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey sent a letter last week to judges around the state with “cautionary advice” that they back off the trend of setting egregiously high bail for poor defendants to keep them behind bars. “Financial conditions should not be imposed if you know or have reason to believe that the defendant is financially incapable of meeting” or “in order to placate public opinion or to punish the defendant,” Morrissey wrote, according to the Sun.

A.G. Brian Frosh has already asked the body that sets administrative rules for state courts to change to take the issue up at their next hearing. Frosh wants them to amend their procedures to keep courts from setting high bonds that defendants cannot pay. He has cited issues with racial targeting and potential violations of constitutional rights in his argument that setting bail too high is wrong.

Even before asking the Rules Committee to amend the rules, Frosh wrote to five state lawmakers who had asked for his opinion on the issue. He expressed a similar argument to them. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender and others backed Frosh in his public appeal for change in the bail system. Chief Public Defender Paul DeWolfe noted the high number of defendants in Baltimore who remain detained on charges with bail set at $5,000 or less because they cannot afford to pay.

Bail bondsmen and those who represent their interests have spoken out against the fight against the cash bail system. They and others worry reducing bail requirements could allow dangerous criminals to be set free, at least while they await trial after they have been charged. It could also hurt the bail bonds industry if people don’t need their help to get out from behind bars.

It’s unclear whether the Rules Committee will take up the issue raised by Frosh last week in their next meeting. Their agenda for their next hearing has not yet been posted on their website.

But for now, it seems that Frosh’s public appeals are having an effect on the way judges treat bail. Now, they’re being held to some standard by the state’s top district court judge.

Ethan McLeod
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