The fight over whether bail unfairly harms poor defendants seems unlikely to be settled in the Maryland General Assembly this year, leaving in place a recent court rule change that greatly reduces the use of bail.
Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), the lead sponsor of a House bill that would essentially reverse the rule imposed by the Maryland Court of Appeals, said Thursday that he plans to withdraw the measure so lawmakers can assess the impact of the court’s decision on the state’s criminal-justice system.
He and Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), who sponsored a competing bill that would enshrine the rule change into state law, sent a letter Wednesday to the politically powerful Legislative Black Caucus, urging members to essentially kill all of the major pieces of legislation that deal with pretrial release.
On Thursday morning, a divided caucus voted 18 to 13 to encourage the relevant House and Senate committees to take no action on bail-reform measures this year.
“I think it’s positive,” Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), a strong opponent of imposing bail on poor defendants, said after the meeting. “We have to continue to be vigilant to make sure that the good work of the Court of Appeals doesn’t get reversed.”
The vote by the Black Caucus, one of the largest groups in the state legislature, is likely to carry considerable weight in the General Assembly. However, it does not mean the bail proposals are dead.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday night approved a bill, sponsored by Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), that is similar to the one Anderson is withdrawing in the House. It would redesign the state’s bail system, allowing only those charged with misdemeanors to be released on personal recognizance.
Frosh says the legislation would essentially undo the court’s landmark rule change, which requires judges to impose the “least onerous” conditions when setting bail for a defendant who is not considered a danger or a flight risk.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that if a bill moves out of the Senate, his committee “will take a look at it.” In other words, even if the House version of the bill is killed, the Senate version could be considered in both chambers.
Still, Anderson’s decision to withdraw his bill is a significant blow to the powerful bail bond industry, which has been lobbying to preserve bail.
“We can’t win,” said Vinnie Magliano, president of East Coast Bail Bonds. “They are putting us out of business.”
Magliano said he has lost about 70 percent of his customers since October, when District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey advised judges and commissioners to impose the “least onerous” conditions on defendants who cannot be released on their own recognizance.
Magliano said his industry will continue to fight. “Bail is needed,” he said. “We’re going to keep holding people accountable. . . . If they don’t pass it and crime goes up, I don’t want to hear it. The blood will be on their hands.”
Anderson, who introduced his bill before the Court of Appeals ruling, said he decided to withdraw it after talking to Morrissey.
Anderson said he was told that the ruling, which officially takes effect in July, already is having the effect the courts thought it would, with more poor defendants who cannot afford bail being released and violent offenders who pose a safety risk to the public remaining jailed.
Last year, bail bondsmen tried to stop the Court of Appeals from considering the rule change, suggesting that any modifications to the pretrial system should instead come from the General Assembly.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) joined their effort, sending a letter to the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Maryland Court of Appeals that urged the judges to leave any changes in the hands of lawmakers.
Miller expressed support for bail bondsmen this week and said he expects Muse’s bill to move to the full Senate.
“I think we need bail bondsmen to go after the bad guys,” he said. “These people with the ivory tower and pie in the sky don’t realize that there are bad people in the world, and when they disappear we need somebody to find them. . . . The bail bondsmen, they’ve got a role to play.”
Over the past month, lobbyists for bail bondsmen have wined and dined Baltimore City and Prince George’s County lawmakers at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, hoping to persuade them to vote for the legislation that the industry had a hand in crafting.
“They’re all over the place talking to legislators, trying to persuade them that this is important for the people who are in the criminal justice system,” Frosh said during a recent interview. “The opposite is true. . . . It’s a dangerous bill that lines the pockets of the bail bond industry.”