The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus voted overwhelmingly Thursday to oppose a bill that would resurrect the bail system in Maryland, instead pledging support for a court rule aimed at limiting the number of poor people stuck in jail because they can’t afford to post bond.
The 31 to 5 vote was a victory for progressives focused on criminal-justice reform and a blow to the powerful bail bond industry, which has pressured the caucus and the General Assembly to pass legislation overturning the court rule.
The Senate passed the bill last week, and the measure is awaiting action in the House of Delegates. Without support from the Black Caucus, which wields strong influence in the House, its chances of passing appear slim.
“We’re thrilled with the caucus vote, but we also know this is Annapolis and anything can happen,” said Caryn York, leader of a coalition called Safe and Just Maryland, which advocates for racial equality in the criminal justice system. “We still have a lot of work to do to ensure the final demise of Senate Bill 983.”
She said advocates will shift their attention to the House Rules Committee, which would have to approve the bill in order for it to be considered by the full chamber before the legislature adjourns April 10.
“There is a lot of time left and many things can happen,” said Alexandra Hughes, chief of staff to House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who has not taken a position on the bill.
Among those who attended the caucus meeting was Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), who last year sought the rule change that prohibits judges from setting bail at levels that poor defendants cannot pay. He said he is optimistic the new rule will stand, keeping Maryland in the vanguard of states that in recent years have limited or eliminated bail.
“I think this is a very positive sign,” he said.
Even as progressives campaigned in recent weeks against the bill to restore bail, the bail bond industry pressed hard for it, hiring well-connected lobbyists, hosting steak dinners for lawmakers and pouring tens of thousands of dollars into politicians’ campaign coffers.
The industry said the issue was not equity for poor defendants but how to keep bad guys locked up and ensure that suspects who are released from jail return to court for their hearings and trials.
“What can I say? What I want to say, I can’t,” Vinnie Magliano, president of EastCoast Bailbonds, quipped in an interview after the caucus made its decision.
“My thing is it is unfortunate for the people in Baltimore, having to live in the crime, a killing a day,” he said.
Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), the bill’s sponsor and a member of the caucus, told his colleagues that he proposed the legislation because he thinks judges should have the option to set bail, which might be less of a financial burden for a poor defendant than other pretrial conditions, such as paying the monthly cost for ankle monitors.
“It’s absolutely true that all of us want to make sure that no poor person sits in jail,” Muse said. “I did not see where this bill did that.”
He said limiting the use of bail is like “taking the coat off one monster and putting it on another.”
Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore), chairman of the Black Caucus, voted not to support to the bail measure, after equivocating earlier this week. Glenn said she believes that all caucus members share the same goals but that they disagree about the best way to achieve them.
In the end, she said at the meeting, she thought it made sense to allow the court rule to formally take effect in July and monitor its impact, reserving the option for the legislature to revisit the issue.
Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), who earlier this month withdrew the House version of Muse’s bill, said the caucus vote sends “a very strong message” to Busch to let the bill die in committee.
“This is one of those issues that could divide the party,” he said.