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Racing for a bail bill

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s District Court judges could soon find themselves working weekends, under a proposal being hammered out with just three weeks left in the General Assembly session.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John J. McCarthy said Thursday that he expects lawmakers will initially approve a short-term plan that will include requiring judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to work weekends. The plan will likely also include a risk assessment tool that will result in the automatic release of low-risk offenders and additional state support to local governments to help offset the costs.

The plan is the result of intensified efforts by a legislative work group following Tuesday’s order by the Court of Appeals. The top court said it is holding fast to its landmark ruling that found a right to counsel when bail is set, but will delay implementation temporarily to see what the General Assembly suggests.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery, said the short-term plan will significantly alter how court commissioners do their jobs.

The most likely vehicle for the legislation is House Bill 1186. The bill, sponsored by Del. Curt Anderson, proposes to establish guidelines under which court commissioners can release some defendants.

“The bill will be amended significantly,” Dumais said. “The court commissioners will have no discretion in any way.”

Dumais, a member of the work group, said the cost of the interim fix will be in the neighborhood of about $15 million — much less than the $30 million price tag attached to hiring public defenders as a result of the Court of Appeals’ DeWolfe v. Richmond decision.

“Everything is on the table,” she said.

Sen. Joseph M. Getty, R-Carroll and Baltimore counties, said that he and other legislators will take reports by the existing legislative and judicial task forces and craft a legislative solution to the court ruling.

“We’ll try and combine those so they fit for the Maryland judiciary,” said Getty, a member of the work group.

Weekend work, at least for some judges, appears to be on the short list of components to the legislative solution.

“If we’re going to hit the target that the court has set for us, I think we’re going to need some help on weekends,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “I think it’s likely that judges are going to have to spend some time in court on weekends.”

Frosh also is pressing for his proposal to replace initial bail hearings before District Court commissioners with an objective risk-assessment tool that would put suspects into one of three categories: those who should be released on their own recognizance, those who can be released on bail and those who must be held in custody pending trial. Individuals held in custody would be provided a bail review hearing before a judge, at which they would have a right to counsel.

But Frosh said the risk assessment tool would not be ready for statewide release for up to a year following enactment, and legislation would be needed to “bridge the gap.”

“We’re trying to bring the guiding principles” of the right to counsel “down to a final level of detail,” Frosh said.

Dumais said the risk assessment, similar to a recommendation made in December by a legislative task force, would be considered by the General Assembly in the 2015 session.

She said the House and Senate should have plenty of time to pass the interim solution before legislators go home in April.

“We’re not going to get all rolled up in the [procedural] rules,” Dumais said. “We’ll make it.”

Daily Record legal affairs writer Steve Lash contributed to this story.