Despite years of scrutiny and two legislative task force inquiries the Maryland cash bail system has remained untouched. Thousands of defendants sit in jails statewide for months on end awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford to post bail. Many end up being released after their cases are dismissed, and others remain until accepting a guilty plea to time served or probation. In some cases the bails set by court commissioners or judges are exorbitantly high and in other cases the defendants simply cannot scrape together any amount of cash or collateral for a bail bondsman. The bail bond industry has been raking in profits for decades by preying off the desperate desire of defendants to get out of jail, and the industry’s hefty contributions to lawmakers have largely shielded it from reproach. But within the last month two influential members of the state’s legal community have spoken out against the current cash bail system, and their words have already translated to real change in the district and circuit criminal courts.
In mid October the newly elected Attorney General sent a memo to five state lawmakers declaring that judges and court commissioners must consider the defendant’s finances when determining an appropriate bail. The memo goes on to say that if bail is too high for the defendant the Court of Appeals in Annapolis would likely find it unlawful, and further states that an amount too high for the defendant to post would be excessive and a violation of Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. While the Attorney General’s memo was advisory and did not establish any type of rule of law, the Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland took notice and sent a memo of his own. This memo instructs other District Court judges to treat monetary bail as a means to insure the defendant’s return to court, and not as a means to assure the public safety. Defense attorneys have been making this argument for years to court commissioners and judges across the state with little success. Too often our state judges use high bail amounts as a means to keep a defendant in custody pending his or her trial. These excessive bails are punitive and unconstitutional, but have become status quo in Maryland courts.
Excessive bails are set by judges and court commissioners all over the state, but this epidemic is particularly out of control in Baltimore City and to a lesser extent Baltimore County. Defendants arrested on drug charges such as possession with intent to distribute are often held on six-figure bail amounts, and end up paying thousands to bail bondsmen who lure customers with 1% down payment plans. It is not only drug charges that result in outrageous bail amounts, but also gun charges and alleged violent offenses where there is little objective evidence of guilt. The roots of the problem are the judges and commissioners that have been approaching bail hearings entirely wrong for years; they read the charges and set a bail amount solely on the alleged facts in the statement of probable cause. It becomes lost that defendants are to be presumed innocent at every step of the judicial process, including at a bail hearing. But this finally appears to be changing as the Chief Judge’s memorandum is starting to show its influence in court. Defendants that do not pose a threat to the community and are not a legitimate flight risk are being released on their own recognizance. This falls in line with the least onerous means to assure the return of the defendant to court. Some defendants who are determined to be serious dangers to the community are being held in custody, but the judges are now putting their findings on the record, as instructed by the Chief Judge.
Some judges may still be reluctant to modify their method for setting bail, but eventually they will fall in line. If the Attorney General and the Chief Judge are not enough of an influence then the appellate courts will hopefully set them straight. The court commissioners are still a bit worrisome though, as they have little or no legal training and will not face any backlash as of yet for not complying with the memos (and the Constitution). The Blog will continue to follow this important issue, and we hope that sweeping changes to the Maryland cash bail system are on the horizon. The unjust detention of defendants and the money grab by the bail bondsmen has been going on for too long, and it will be a great victory when both come to an end.
Benjamin Herbst is a Maryland criminal defense lawyer who handles gun and drug violations as well as bail review hearings in all district and circuit courts. Contact Benjamin anytime at 410-207-2598 for a free consultation.
Attorney general questions Maryland bail system, washingtonpost.com.