Our Discriminatory Bail System

One of the great injustices of the Maryland state bail system is that it discriminates against the poor. People who are charged with crimes are often held on high bails that they cannot possibly afford. This can happen for even relatively minor criminal allegations. The only way they can get out is by paying a bail bondsman, who may charge an exorbitantly high interest rate. Oftentimes, judges and commissioners, when setting bails, err on the side of caution — that is, if in doubt, they set a very high bail.

The results of this system can be devastating for families and defendants who cannot afford the bail. In Baltimore City, in particular, a defendant could have to wait an extremely long time to get his day in court. This might mean that, if he cannot get out on bail, he may have to wait upwards of a year — sometimes even longer — to go to trial and show he is innocent. (Unfortunately “speedy trial” rules have no teeth to most City judges). Wealthy defendants, on the other hand, can post property (such as a home) and gain pretrial release without spending a cent.

What does a defendant do if he is being held for an offense for which he would probably serve less time than it takes to get to trial? The defendant will have to make a difficult choice. He can plead guilty, and get out earlier, or he can remain locked up in jail and proceed to trial. Most people choose to plead guilty, even if they did not commit the crime. Of course, by so doing, the defendant is building a bad rap sheet, which may some day be used against him — for example, if he is ever charged again as a repeat offender.

This is a system that obviously needs to be reformed. A task force in the General Assembly recently looked into the problem and recommended that a new system be implemented. Of course, that system would have to pass the Legislature and be approved by the Governor. Opposing bail reform would be one particularly strong (if not motivated) lobbying group: the bail bondsmen. They stand to lose by any reform the system, and they will fight it tooth and nail. Of course, because advocates of bail reform are poor, they will not be able to match funds to compete in the lobbying of politicians.

One reform would be to switch to a system like the federal system, in which defendants are either released or held based almost entirely on a judge’s risk assessment. In the case of a defendant (rich or poor) who is a low risk of danger or flight, the judge most often will require that a third party take responsibility for the defendant, and report any non-compliance to the court. As simple as this system is, it works much better than the state system. And it does not discriminate against the poor.

To read more about this issue, visit this Baltimore Sun article.