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Judges ordered their release from jail. They weren’t let out, lawsuit says.

The Prince George’s County Courthouse. (Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post)
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Nine people who were recently detained at the Prince George’s jail allege in a lawsuit that they and potentially hundreds of others were illegally incarcerated for weeks or months before their trials — even after judges ordered or authorized their release.

The nine plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Maryland on Tuesday, targeting county government employees and judges they say were responsible for their detainment. Their lawyers are seeking class-action certification and said the problems they outlined in the case may have affected hundreds of people who were detained at the jail in the past three years.

“These illegally jailed people number in the hundreds,” the lawsuit reads, “and comprise approximately one-third of the entire population of the Prince George’s County Jail.”

The lawsuit alleges that district and circuit court judges order, or at least permit, those charged with crimes to be released from jail pending trial. But in the process, the suit says, those judges unlawfully defer to the county’s pretrial services officials to determine what level of supervision people should receive — or whether they should be released at all.

In the meantime, the suit alleges, those whose release was ordered by judges languish in jail, waiting for long periods for decisions that are often accompanied by no explanation.

During those periods, plaintiffs lost their homes, missed funerals, were separated from their young children, were unable to care for sick loved ones or contracted the coronavirus while locked in the county jail in Upper Marlboro, according to the court filing. Several plaintiffs either were acquitted of the charges against them or saw their charges dropped altogether by the state’s attorney’s office, the lawsuit says.

A spokesperson for the Maryland judiciary said judges do not comment on pending litigation. Separately, a spokesperson for Prince George’s County said in a statement that officials “have been made aware of the allegations and are reviewing them” but that, as of Tuesday evening, they had “not yet been served with a lawsuit.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Civil Rights Corps, the WilmerHale law firm and Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. Those attorneys worked closely with public defenders as well as Life After Release and Courtwatch PG — community organizations in the county whose volunteers advocate on behalf of incarcerated people and observe bail review hearings.

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The lawsuit relies on information gathered by those volunteers, including anecdotes about the habits of the court and data about bail review decisions. After advocating through court motions and letters, court observers and public defenders said they took their concerns to Civil Rights Corps.

“This is an issue that lots of people have been advocating about for a long time,” said Ellora Israni, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps who is working on the case. “We see this as just one piece of the puzzle, and we’re building off the work they have already done.”

Although Civil Rights Corps takes on bail-related cases all the time across the country, Israni said, the group has “never seen anything like this” before.

The lawsuit takes aim at what it alleges are systemic failures of the pretrial release process in Prince George’s County. That system includes lower-level employees in the county courthouses and the corrections department, as well as elected judges, who collectively determine when and how someone is released while that person awaits trial.

“It’s not that there is one piece of the puzzle that is the problem,” Israni said. “Everyone has bought into this collective abdication of responsibility.”

The county, the leaders of its corrections department, and the 11 Prince George’s County District and Circuit Court judges who oversaw the plaintiff’s bond hearings are named as defendants in the suit, an attempt at achieving direct accountability in the judiciary that is rare in litigation. The judges are LaKeecia Allen, Bryon Bereano, John Bielec, Scott M. Carrington, Ada Clark-Edwards, Stacey Cobb Smith, Brian C. Denton, Robert W. Heffron Jr., Donnaka Lewis, Gregory C. Powell and Cathy Serrette.

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After a bond hearing, a judge decides whether the person should be incarcerated, released on their own recognizance, or let go with restrictions on their travel or other conditions. People are only supposed to be jailed while awaiting trial if there is no less restrictive alternative that would ensure the community is protected and that a defendant returns to court.

The lawsuit alleges that judges in Prince George’s have “abdicated their constitutional duty” during bail review hearings by transferring decision-making power about pretrial release to “unaccountable non-judicial county officials” within the corrections department.

If a judge decides that a person meets the requirements to be released pretrial, the lawsuit says, judges will either order a specific level of supervision or authorize the pretrial division to choose whatever level it sees fit.

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In both circumstances, the lawsuit says, there is no further judicial oversight in the process — which it asserts is illegal. Further deliberation happens behind closed doors among pretrial division employees, and can take weeks or months, because there is a significant backlog of cases.

The suit claims that defense attorneys have struggled to reach the pretrial division for updates on their clients’ cases and are given scant or inconsistent information.

Donnell Davis, a 28-year-old plaintiff in the case, was arrested in October 2020 on charges of first-degree felony assault and second-degree misdemeanor assault. He had no prior convictions or failures to appear in court, according to the lawsuit. His bail review judge ordered him held without bond but gave the pretrial division the option to release him at Level 4 — which is home detention.

Three weeks later, the pretrial division filed a notice with the court saying Davis was not eligible for pretrial release but offered no explanation.

At a hearing one month after his arrest, the state’s attorney’s office dismissed Davis’s felony assault charge. He remained in jail.

In December, desperate for information, Davis began calling the pretrial division himself, but his calls were never returned, the lawsuit says. Davis spent Christmas and the New Year holiday in jail before his trial on Jan. 7, 2021 — three months after his arrest — when he was found not guilty of the misdemeanor charge.

By the time he was released from jail, Davis said he had lost his job, lost friends and developed a deep sense of self-doubt.

“I just feel like that whole three months really took away a lot,” Davis said. “I felt like I lost my self-esteem. I got to questioning myself. It was a whole mind trick for three months.”

In the lawsuit, attorneys tried to quantify the extent of the problem by citing data from the department of corrections. From Dec. 1, 2018, to Feb. 28, 2021, the suit says, 1,208 people were given pretrial referrals — meaning judges said they would permit defendants’ release if officials could determine appropriate conditions — but more than 20 percent of those detainees were not released. Those who were released still had to wait “days, weeks or months” to get out of jail, the suit alleges.

In one snapshot taken in May 2020, attorneys said a review of the jail population found at least 121 of 503 people had been referred for pretrial release but remained incarcerated. Forty-eight of those people had been waiting more than three months to get out.

The promise of pretrial release gives jailed people and their families a sense of “false hope,” the lawsuit says.

That’s what the mother of one 16-year-old boy detained at the Prince George’s jail said she has felt since he was arrested in mid-June. Soon after his arrest, a judge authorized the teenager, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, to be released to his mother on home detention. But he remains in jail.

The teen’s charges are not detailed in the lawsuit, and his attorneys declined to provide them because he is a juvenile. His attorneys and his mother, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to protect her son’s identity, have asked the pretrial office to release the teen or give a reason for his incarceration.

The teen’s mother, who has two 7-year-old daughters, said she is a single parent who worked a full-time job and a second part-time one before her son’s arrest. She said she has been able to visit him in person only once because the jail does not allow children into the jail as visitors and child care for her 7-year-olds is expensive. The teen is allowed out of his cell to make phone calls one hour per day — usually between midnight and 1 a.m., according to his mother and the lawsuit.

“He’s never spent that much time away from me at all,” she said. “That’s my baby in there.”

She is worried for the emotional well-being of her son and the long-term setbacks his continued detention could cause in his education, she said.

“What is the reason of having pretrial if they’re not going to be released before their trial?” she said. “The judge authorized it. So do they not follow the judge’s orders? That’s the question, and I want answers. How does this happen?”

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