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House bill seeks delay to study risk assessment tool

ANNAPOLIS – With the General Assembly set to adjourn Monday, the House Judiciary Committee has abandoned Senate-passed legislation that would replace initial bail hearings before District Court commissioners with a controversial objective pretrial risk assessment computer program that would assess the risk of releasing a suspect from custody.

Instead, the House committee voted 20-0 in favor of a measure that would create a task force to study the feasibility of the computer program. The committee’s vote sends House Bill 1232 to the House floor for a vote this week.

If the House of Delegates passes the proposal, a conference committee between Senate and House members would be needed to hammer out compromise legislation before the General Assembly adjourns on April 7. If no compromise is reached, neither measure would pass.

The contrasting legislative efforts are in response to the Maryland Court of Appeals’ Sept. 25 decision in DeWolfe v. Richmond that arrestees have a state constitutional right to counsel at initial bail hearings.

The General Assembly is facing not only adjournment but a deadline set by the high court.

The court, in a March 11 order, said it would stay enforcement of its Richmond ruling until June 5. The court also said it would hold oral arguments May 6 on what enforcement order it should issue in light of the General Assembly’s action or inaction.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Joseph F. Vallario Jr. voiced concern during Wednesday’s debate with implementing a computerized tool to replace commissioners even for a limited time.

“We’re not going to have a pilot program where people are being released without a judge,” said Vallario, D-Calvert and Prince George’s.

Other committee members also expressed anxiety about deferring to a computer program.

“The tool cannot be infallible,” said Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick and Washington

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, said the task force’s authority should be limited to recommending whether a computerized tool should be implemented. Implementation could go forward only with subsequent approval by the General Assembly, he said.

“We don’t want to set this on autopilot,” he added.

Under the House bill, the Task Force on Pretrial Services would be in existence for three years beginning June 1 and study the feasibility and appropriateness of adopting a pretrial risk assessment tool.

Task force members would include the Maryland attorney general; state public defender; secretary of public safety and correctional services; members of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, the Maryland Correctional Administrators Association, the House and Senate judiciary committees, a civil rights organization; and representatives from the bail bond industry and an organization that represents crime victims.

Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe has said it would cost the state about $30 million annually to have attorneys on call at the 177,000 initial bail hearings statewide each year.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chief sponsor of the Senate bill, has said his pretrial risk assessment approach would cost the state about half that amount.

Before the Senate vote Monday night, Frosh said his legislation is the most cost-effective and efficient method for complying with the court’s ruling. Failure by the General Assembly to enact his proposal would leave the state with no choice but to provide the $30 million to the public defender’s office, added Frosh, D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Frosh did not return telephone messages late Wednesday afternoon seeking comment on the Senate-House impasse.

Under the Senate-passed bill, the computer program would assess a person’s risk of offending or fleeing if released from custody before trial. Those who are not released would be afforded a bail review hearing before a judge, generally within 24 hours, at which they would have the right to counsel.

The legislation, Senate Bill 973, would require arrestees to be held pending judicial review if a police officer states under oath that they are a threat to public safety or of fleeing.