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Prosecutors in Prince George’s will no longer recommend cash bail for defendants

“I do not believe in the cash bail system,” Prince George’s State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy said in her “state of justice” speech. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Standing on the stage of a bright conference hall, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy gave a 20-minute speech about the “state of justice” in the county. Claps and cheers punctuated the address as the county’s top prosecutor talked about convictions won and criminals sentenced. But there was one clear high point when it came to the audience’s reaction.

“I do not believe in the cash bail system,” Braveboy said last week, with the local president of the NAACP, public defenders and justice reform advocates leaping to a standing ovation. “Starting October 1st, my office will no longer request cash bail as a condition of release.”

Those presumed innocent who are not a threat or a danger to the community should not be in jail before trial, said Braveboy, who took office in January.

Braveboy’s new policy adds her to a growing list of progressive prosecutors around the country seeking to end cash bail as part of their criminal justice agendas. And the shift also comes a little more than two years after Maryland changed its bail rules to require that judges impose the “least onerous” release conditions for defendants who are not considered dangerous or a flight risk.

Braveboy’s office said alternatives to cash bail include counseling, mental health evaluations and drug testing in addition to electronic monitoring through pretrial services under the county Department of Corrections.

For supporters of the move, the wait now is for the specifics on how the plan will play out and how judges respond.

“The devil is in the details,” said District Public Defender for Prince George’s County Keith Lotridge, who said he is excited about Braveboy’s move to help eliminate cash bail. “The state may not ask for cash bond but it's not up to the state. Unless the judges have buy-in and the judges believe there are resources available to secure people returning to court or to ensure there are no safety issues, some judges will have knee-jerk reactions and hold people without bond.”

Groups working to end widespread incarceration found some evidence that in the absence of being able to set cash bail terms, more judges will order defendants held without bond in an abundance of caution. The groups also fear strains on the county’s pretrial resources if there is an increased use of GPS monitoring.

A report by the Color of Change and Progressive Maryland looked at the 11 months after the Maryland Court of Appeals in February 2017 backed an opinion from Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) stating that cash bail is unconstitutional. Frosh said cash bail unfairly keeps poor people in jail for months awaiting trial while others facing similar charges can pay to go free.

The groups’ report found the 2017 rule change resulted in a drop — from 61 percent to 50 percent — of defendants being held on cash bail. Those ordered held without bond rose 14.5 percent.

“We’re happy to see progress being made around the money-based bail system . . . but we don’t want an implementation of this that leads to more people being held without bond and therefore not being able to be released,” said Larry Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland.

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Stafford also worried that no cash bail could drive an increase in ankle monitoring, which can incur fees for defendants who submit to such services through a private company.

“It’s trading the bail industry for another industry,” Stafford said. “These can be financially onerous conditions too.”

Andrew Cephas, a spokesman for the county Department of Corrections said there are no fees associated with any of the four levels of pretrial monitoring through the county, “as these individuals are under the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.”

The costs could come for defendants who opt for private monitoring services and less demanding oversight requirements.

Diego Albornoz, owner of Diego’s Bail Bonds, said that while defendants monitored by the county don’t pay additional fees, they also may have to undergo drug screening, prove they have a landline, visit Upper Marlboro once a week or put up proof of residence. Albornoz said if their release conditions allow, some people are willing to pay the $250 to $500 a month to be privately monitored to avoid the county’s requirements.

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He also said bonds are a method for compelling people to come back to court.

“I understand that people can’t pay because they don’t have money,” Albornoz said. “But people won’t go to court if you don’t hold them accountable. We [bail bondsmen] made people go to court.”

The number of defendants who don’t show up for court proceedings appears to have increased since the state changed its rules on cash bail, state court data indicates.

From July 2016 to June 2017, the fiscal year before the statewide cash bail rule took effect, about 16 percent of the roughly 19,200 criminal cases filed in Prince George’s District Court reported failures for the defendant to appear in court, according to data from the Maryland judiciary. Failure-to-appear incidents rose to nearly 18 percent of the roughly 18,600 criminal cases filed in the county in the fiscal year after the rule change took effect.

Braveboy said her policy shift won’t end the cash bail system, but “we hope that the steps that we are taking will signal to other decision-makers that there are alternatives.”

Prosecutors will still request no bond for individuals considered to be a danger to the community or to themselves, said Denise Roberts, a spokeswoman for Braveboy.

“For example, when someone is charged with murder, we routinely ask for no bond because we believe the community would be at risk,” Roberts said. “Oftentimes there is no condition of release that would protect the public.”

Cephas said as of last week there were 50 defendants on electronic monitoring and 110 defendants on pretrial release with case management. Each of the county’s case managers is not permitted to carry a caseload of more than 50 defendants, he said. The department currently has 16 correctional treatment coordinators doing pretrial work, he said, and can lean on other employees who don’t work in pretrial to take on cases as needed.

“The Prince George’s County Department of Corrections is prepared to handle a possible influx if there is an increase of defendants being released on pretrial monitoring,” Cephas said in a statement.

Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color of Change, echoed Stafford’s fears that more people would be electronically monitored or held in jail without bond. But, Roberts said, he remains “cautiously optimistic.”

“That gives us hope that Prince George’s County will catch up in the way that it should be as the wealthiest black-majority county in the country,” he said of the criminal justice policy. “It’s a place that demographically is ­tailor-made for these types of reforms, but there’s been a reluctance to take this kind of bold action.”

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