Report: Bail System Makes the Innocent Pay, Targets Poor Baltimore Neighborhoods

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It’s no secret that the bail bonds game is a lucrative business, but according to a new report from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, that game is costly for many who end up being found innocent anyway. It also perpetuates poverty in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, the authors write.

Today, the OPD is releasing the results of its four-year study on bail bonds in Maryland’s courts in a report titled, “The High Cost of Bail: How Maryland’s Reliance on Money Bail Jails the Poor and Costs the Community Millions.” For the report, NYU business professor Arpit Gupta, data consultant Douglas Swanson, OPD appellate attorney Ethan Frenchman and other OPD staff gathered data from the Maryland Judiciary Case Search database ranging from 2011 to 2015.

With those numbers, they found some questionable, if not backwards trends from the bail bonds system in Maryland:

  • Defendants who ended up being found innocent collectively paid more than $75 million in bond premiums – usually 10 percent of the total bond — which is money they’ll never get back. That was more than double the amount paid by defendants who were later found guilty.
  • Among nearly 47,000 defendants held on bail for more than five days, more than 17,000 – around 37 percent – remained jailed because they couldn’t afford to pay bonds below $5,000.
  • The mean bail amount set for black defendants was 45 percent higher than that set for white defendants in district courts.
  • The three zip codes that paid the most in bail bond premiums were in Sandtown-Winchester, Park Heights and East Baltimore.

The OPD notes that the first two of those three zip codes hold the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The amount they paid combined – at least $22.6 million combined – is enough to pay for a year’s worth of childcare for around 2,800 pre-K children in the city, the authors suggest.

The report notes the limitations of its data. Most notably, the study only covers district court cases, rather than those in circuit courts, and doesn’t count six districts that have shifted away from the judiciary case search database to a different system. It also doesn’t count traffic offenses punishable by jail time or expunged cases. However, some of these data shortcomings mean the study results are probably an underestimation of the bail system’s effects, the authors write.

A better alternative, the OPD suggests, would be a more widespread adoption of unsecured bail, which makes defendants pay up only if they never show up in court. Data they collected from Baltimore City Circuit and District courts demonstrated that defendants with unsecured bail actually have a slightly lower failure-to-appear rate than those with regular bond paid up front.

The timing of the report is no coincidence. Per Attorney General Brian Frosh’s request, the body that sets administrative rules for Maryland’s courts is meeting on Friday to discuss changing its guidance for court officers for setting bail and other aspects of pretrial release.

Ethan McLeod
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