With the end of the Maryland General Assembly session approaching, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) stunned some lawmakers with this last-minute order: Find an inexpensive way to reform the state’s bail system.
It’s an issue that lawmakers have been trying for years to tackle, without much luck, but Miller gave the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee two weeks to find a solution, even as fellow Democrats voiced concerns the rush.
In 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that every defendant is entitled to legal representation “in all stages” of a criminal proceeding, including early-on bail hearings held before commissioners. But having public defenders work 24-7 would be costly, so lawmakers began searching for alternatives. Currently, Maryland is using on-call lawyers who receive pro bono credit or $50 per hour in a program that could cost up to $10 million per year.
Over the years, there have been several studies of the issue and a flurry of legislation . This year, Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore) proposed that police officers issue citations for many offenses rather than processing that person, reducing the number of people needing bail hearings. Anderson’s bill passed in the House of Delegates last month but died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee — at which point Miller urged the committee to find another solution.
Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick), a member of the committee, proposed changing the Maryland Constitution to state that defendants are no longer entitled to representation at a bail hearing. “To me, this is the best solution,” Hough said, adding that the state would still need to reform its bail system.
But constitutional law professors point out that such a change would take away the right of the poor to be represented by a lawyer.
“This is a radical, extreme response,” Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) said during a hearing scheduled at the last minute Friday in Annapolis.
Support for the bill is heavily lacking. Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the committee, said he doesn’t expect members to even vote on it. (Even if both chambers passed the legislation and the governor signed it, voters would have to give their approval during the next general election in 2016.)
“We’re all fumbling around, trying to decide what to do — if there’s something to do,” Zirkin said at the hearing, adding that Maryland’s current fix seems to be working just fine. “Maybe what comes out of this is that we decide it’s not as big of a deal.”