MARYLAND IS a small state, but it is a colossus to the special-interest lobbyists from the bail bonds industry. Only California and Florida, states six and three times more populous than the Old Line State, respectively, rake in more campaign cash from the bail bonds business. The industry is so desperate to block meaningful systemic reform — and maintain a status quo that empties the wallets of poor and disproportionately minority defendants — that in addition to greasing the palms (read: campaign accounts) of key individual legislators who do its bidding in Annapolis, it has spent more than $20,000 throwing lavish dinners for all 19 members of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee over the past four years, according to Common Cause Maryland. Those lawmakers must have been famished.
For their trouble, and handsome contributions, the bail bondsmen may now be handsomely rewarded. They are throwing up legislative barriers that threaten to impede major strides toward scrapping a patently unfair, and probably unconstitutional, system by which a defendant’s bank balance often determines whether he languishes in jail for weeks or months pending trial or goes free.
If the bail bond industry succeeds, it will block reforms already set in motion by both Maryland’s attorney general and a unanimous rule change by the state’s highest court. In an opinion issued last year, the attorney general, Democrat Brian E. Frosh, questioned the constitutionality and common sense of locking up prisoners who are neither flight risks nor dangers to public safety simply because they can’t afford to make bail. (A counterexample is the District of Columbia, which, having scrapped cash bail years ago, has been successful in keeping genuinely dangerous defendants locked up and using risk-assessment tools and pretrial services to ensure that others show up for court dates.)
Mr. Frosh’s opinion was followed, last month, by a landmark rule change by the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest tribunal, requiring judges and court commissioners to impose the “least onerous” pretrial conditions for non-risky defendants.
That new rule is scheduled to go into effect in July, but it may be neutered by legislation, backed and shaped by the bail bonds industry, now pending in Annapolis. Unsurprisingly, the legislation is backed by lawmakers, including the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, whose campaign coffers have been generously filled by the industry.
By jamming state jails with defendants who need not languish behind bars as they await trial, the status quo represents a massive hit to state taxpayers and an unacceptable burden to poor and minority defendants, who are least able to post bail and often most likely to lose jobs and families as a result.
It’s no surprise that the bail bond industry would want to perpetuate a system that has proved so lucrative. What would be disgraceful is if their cash has bought so much influence in the capital that common-sense reforms are squashed in the name of special-interest profits.
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