Emergency measures to provide better legal protections for poor people that could have wide-reaching effects on the state’s penal system advanced Thursday in the Maryland House and Senate.
Under the measures, people caught smoking marijuana, shoplifting, destroying property or committing one of a series of other misdemeanors would be less likely to be hauled directly to jail. The matters would be handled with citations, with an expectation that the suspects would later show up for court.
The proposals were born out of a Maryland Court of Appeals decision that people arrested in the state should be entitled to have lawyers present when they appear before court commissioners to determine bail.
Currently, suspects may have no representation at the initial hearings, and poor defendants who cannot post nominal amounts of bail sometimes wait for days over a weekend or holiday to appear before a District Court judge.
To staff public defenders, judges, and security officers at the off-hour hearings could cost Maryland $30 million to $60 million annually, according to estimates.
As an alternative, Maryland lawmakers decided to try to reduce the number of people getting sent to jail in the first place.
Under a measure passed 45-1 by the Senate Thursday, police would be expected to use citations to dispense with almost any misdemeanor punishable by 90 days in jail or less. A similar measure advanced in the House, and a companion piece to boost public defender protections for the poor also passed 133-0.
Differences, however, remain between the House and Senate versions of the legislation. A conference committee is expected to begin meeting soon to hash out a compromise.
Under the court ruling, Maryland lawmakers believe they must pass amended statutes within days or begin providing public defenders at initial bail hearings.