Attorney General Brian Frosh says he wants justice for poor defendants around Maryland. He penned a letter today to the body that makes practices for Maryland’s court system asking them to change the rules for setting bail.
The rule he speaks of currently enables courts to set bail higher than what defendants can pay, thus keeping them behind bars before trial because they do not have the means. Frosh wrote to the Standing Rules Committee that the current pretrial system is “ineffective at addressing public safety concerns, disproportionately burdensome to communities of color, and inefficient in its use of State and local resources.”
The attorney general also says in his letter that setting bail too high violates state and constitutional principles that say conditions for their release should be the “least onerous” in order to protect public safety.
Frosh, a Democrat, brought up the issue earlier this month, sending a letter to state legislators who had sought his opinion on the issue. He predicted that if it came before the Maryland Court of Appeals, which appoints the Rules Committee’s members, they would rule the common statewide practice of setting bail too high for a person is unconstitutional.
Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender has not yet issued a statement about Frosh’s newest letter, but its chief public defender backs Frosh on his call for change. “We look forward to the day when presumptively innocent people are no longer caged simply because they are too poor to buy their freedom,” Chief Public Defender Paul Dewolfe said in a statement from Oct. 11.
DeWolfe noted that the issue of people staying behind bars before trial is particularly bad in Baltimore. As of the 11th, 1,453 defendants were in Baltimore City jail, with at least 255 of them on bail of $5,000 or less and awaiting trial for 111 days on average. Frosh reiterated in his Oct. 25 letter that the practice especially hurts blacks and Hispanics more so than white defendants.
On the other side of the aisle, some say reducing bail requirements fuels a threat that dangerous criminals will be out from behind bars too early. And as the Sun noted, bail bondsmen and those representing bail agents’ interests are none too happy with Frosh’s argument.
The Standing Rules Committee is scheduled to meet again on Nov. 17. They have not yet updated their agenda online for that day. If they decide to take up the issue and make a change, it could skip a vote in the General Assembly and vastly change the way our courts set bail requirements.
Ethan McLeod is an associate editor for Baltimore Fishbowl.