Maryland’s Top Court Rules Judges Can’t Detain Defendants on Unaffordable Bail

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Maryland court officers can no longer order that defendants be held ahead of trial on bail that they cannot afford, the state’s top court ruled yesterday.

The seven-judge Maryland Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of adopting a change to its rules for pretrial detention proposed last month by the court’s Standing Committee on Rules and Practice and Procedure. The ruling brought some closure to a debate about whether it’s fair to hold defendants on high bail if they don’t have the money to pay up.

The conversation has been ongoing for years, but past legislative proposals to fix the system floundered in Annapolis. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh stepped up his rhetoric on the issue last fall, issuing advice that the cash bail system is unconstitutional because it disproportionately affects poor minority communities and is also a waste of taxpayer money used to house pre-trial detainees. His argument earned public backing from public defenders and the American Bar Association and convinced the Rules Committee to take up the issue and hear hours of testimony from Marylanders, which led its members to issue their recommendation.

“You need to look at what the defendant’s situation is, what his or her risks really are and attempt to fashion an ability to release on the least onerous conditions possibility,” said retired Court of Appeals Judge and Rules Committee chairman Alan Wilner about the ruling, per the AP.

The Court of Appeals didn’t rule that cash bail should be eliminated entirely, which left the bail bonds industry happy. Rather, the new rule says officers can only set bail that a defendant can afford, or can detain defendants only if they pose a danger to their community.

Frosh’s office hasn’t returned a request for his response to the ruling. On Twitter, he called it a “huge win for justice in [Maryland].” A spokesman for the bail bonds industry, meanwhile, told the Sun he and the bondsmen are happy with the ruling because it keeps cash bail in play.

The new rules for judges will take effect on July 1, according to a release from the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Ethan McLeod
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