Shannan Wise, who was working two temp jobs and attending school for medical billing, remembers the countless calls she made from Central Booking in Baltimore, praying that her friends and family would come up with the $1,000 she needed to get out of jail.
She told her sisters to pawn her television set. They would try to pawn their laptops. One person offered $25. Others pitched in $100.
Wise, 27, had never been in jail before October 2015, when a police officer arrived at her home and said he had a warrant for her arrest. Her younger sister, who suffers from mental illness, had filed an assault charge against her. Wise, a single mother of two, stayed in jail for five days before she was able to post bail.
Zina Makar, the co-director of the Pretrial Justice Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said her client didn’t get out sooner simply because she is poor. If the money had not been scraped together, Wise would have been detained until January 2016, when her first hearing was held and the charges were dismissed.
Advocates say Wise’s experience is not uncommon, shared among other poor defendants in Maryland and across the country.
According to a 2016 report by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, more than 46,000 defendants between 2011 and 2015 were detained more than five days at the start of their criminal case. Of those, more than 17,000 were held on less than a $5,000 bail.
“We are putting people in jail because they are poor,” said Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), who unsuccessfully pushed for changes to the bail system when he served in the state Senate.
Following statewide efforts in New Mexico, Kentucky and New Jersey, Maryland is rethinking its money-based bail system, making moves toward either altering or eliminating it.
The steps are part of a broader effort to address the racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system and reduce the costs of detaining nonviolent offenders awaiting trial.
“This is connected to the concern about mass incarceration,” said Del. Erek L. Barron (D), who last year successfully sponsored a bill that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
The Maryland Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear testimony Jan. 5 from Frosh and others about overhauling the system. The police union, county prosecutors and the bail bond industry are against the court taking up the issue, arguing that only the General Assembly should handle changes to the system. They raise concerns that an overhaul would put public safety at risk, with fewer people showing up to court for trial.
State Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Republican from Frederick who has worked with Democrats on criminal justice legislation, including last year’s sweeping bill that shifted the focus of sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders to drug treatment over incarceration, said he is interested in changing the bail system but opposed to Frosh’s “end-run around the General Assembly. He’s trying to force our hand at changing it.”
He added, “I’m willing to look at the system, but I’m not willing to blow the whole system up.”
Hough said any change should be based on evidence, not anecdotes. He suggested that an independent agency compile data on the state’s bail system, similar to the data on the state’s prison population from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which led to the Justice Reinvestment Act.
Advocates in Maryland have been trying to overhaul the system for more than a decade.
“Maryland had a chance to really lead on this issue, and I’m hopeful that now it will keep pace,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “It’s a win-win-win except for the bail bondsmen. That’s the political fight that we have lost time and time again in Annapolis.”
The most recent effort was sparked earlier this year by five Democratic lawmakers who asked Frosh to weigh in on whether the state’s bail system was constitutional. In the past two years, class-action lawsuits have been filed in San Francisco and the suburbs of St. Louis by Equal Justice Under Law, a D.C.-based organization that fights inequalities in the justice system.
The lawmakers said they worried whether Maryland’s bail system, which they say is unfair to poor and minority defendants, would pass constitutional muster.
Frosh said the system, which sets bails at amounts many defendants can’t afford, could violate due process.
After Frosh’s opinion, District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey advised judges and commissioners in October to impose the “least onerous” conditions on those awaiting trial. The attorney general also asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to consider a rule change to ensure defendants who aren’t a public safety risk don’t languish in jail simply because they are poor.
In November, the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the state Court of Appeals also recommended that the court issue a rule change that would call on judges not to set bail that is too high for a poor defendant to pay unless the defendant is considered a flight risk or danger to society.
Bail bondsmen have pushed back against Morrissey’s advice and started a massive social-media campaign citing cases in which Maryland judges have cut back significantly on setting bail for defendants.
Vinnie Magliano, president of East Coast Bail Bonds, one of the largest bail bond companies in the state, said his business has dropped nearly 90 percent since Morrissey’s letter.
“That was the goal, to basically take us out of business,” Magliano said. “I just don’t understand this great push to just let everyone go. . . . I’m worried about the safety of people who come in contact with the person who doesn’t show up for trial and has a warrant for their arrest.”
Magliano said he is hoping that the court will decide to let the General Assembly, “the ones who were elected,” make any changes to the bail system.
An earlier version of a photo caption incorrectly said that Shannan Wise’s bail was $1,000. Her bail was set at $100,000. She needed $1,000 to secure her release through a bail bondsman.