Committee Overwhelmingly Recommends Change to Cash Bail System

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A court rules committee on Friday voted 18-5 to recommend an overhaul of the state’s cash bail system that would keep judges from jailing poor defendants who can’t afford bail before trial. The issue now heads to the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Attorney General Brian Frosh brought cash bail back into the public eye last month. In an open letter, he cited concerns about the constitutionality of a system that targets poor people and minorities who can’t afford to post bond. Several state legislators prompted Frosh’s public opinion by asking him to send them a letter. Frosh wrote that the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure (a.k.a. “Rules Committee”) should recommend a limit on court officers’ ability to set high bonds for poor defendants who don’t pose a flight risk.

Maryland’s top district court judge chimed in with an order to other judges that backed Frosh’s argument, and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and American Bar Association also joined in with their support late last week. The former released a report with data trends showing disproportionate negative effects of cash bail on minorities and poor neighborhoods, while the president of the latter wrote a letter to the Rules Committee citing federal and state statutes governing rules for bail.

On Friday, all but five members of the Rules Committee voted to recommend a change to the current system. Ret. Judge Alan M. Wilner, the chair of the committee, told The Washington Post, “The impact of setting bail that a person cannot make is irrational. It is not really setting bail — it is putting them in jail, and it has a disparate impact first on poor people, for sure, and on people of color.”

Of the five members who voted against the proposed rule change, at least one was a state legislator who said the General Assembly, not the Maryland Court of Appeals, should be responsible for putting such an overhaul into the rulebooks, the Post reports.

While some are concerned about who should be allowed to dictate such a sweeping shift in the court system, other opposition to a rule change comes from the bail bonds industry, which would see sinking profits. If there aren’t any poor defendants in need of bail bondsmen, there would be fewer defendants in need of a service that charges a 10-percent premium to get them out of jail.

The same state legislators who asked for Frosh’s opinion in the first place are apparently planning to introduce legislation that would match the call for bail reform when the General Assembly meets this January. However, with Maryland now in a 30-day comment period on the proposed rule change, change could come before the legislature meets in 2017.

After the monthlong comment period has passed, the Maryland Court of Appeals will schedule a public hearing on the matter. Those who want to submit their written thoughts can contact the Court of Appeals’ clerk’s office.

Ethan McLeod
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