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Committee budgets $10 million for bail attorneys

ANNAPOLIS — The committee fine-tuning Maryland’s budget has allocated $10 million to have attorneys staff initial bail hearings during the next fiscal year.

Lawmakers are still working on plans to reform Maryland’s bail system, but with only two days left before the legislative session ends, those negotiation talks could fall through. Warren Descheneaux, the General Assembly’s top budget analyst, says this $10 million allocation is a backup plan.

However, public defenders say this won’t come close to solving the problem, in part because it’s not enough money.

The Court of Appeals has ruled that the state must provide defense attorneys for poor defendants’ initial bail hearings, starting in June.

The Senate recently voted to replace these initial hearings with an automated process. Court workers would use data on each defendant, such as criminal history, to assess the person’s risk of skipping court dates or committing more crimes if they were released from jail. Low-risk defendants would be released automatically.

The House is considering a counter measure to test this approach in one or two counties and reevaluate it after three years.

Both the House and Senate plan to meet on Saturday, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Friday that it’s possible they won’t reach an agreement. He called the $10 million allocation the “fail safe resolution.”

“If the House comes up with something better, we’ll pass it,” he said. “If the House comes up with anything we’ll certainly consider it.”

The budget conference committee agreed on Thursday to set aside $10 million in the judiciary department’s general fund, for paying attorneys at initial appearances. Committee members don’t intend for this to carry forward into future years’ budgets.

On the other hand, public defenders say throwing $10 million at the problem will hardly fix anything.

Ricardo Flores, government relations director for the Office of the Public Defender, said this money would need to cover about 175,000 criminal cases a year. Without accounting for administrative costs, this would come out to roughly $57 a case.

Private attorneys would have to volunteer for these positions. They would likely stay on call overnight and on weekends.

Flores said this could be lucrative in a place like Baltimore, which has a high volume of cases. But in rural areas, attorneys may be reluctant to stay on call because they might not make any money during a given shift.

Alternatively, the state could pay a very low hourly rate.

By contrast, the Office of the Public Defender commissions private attorneys for $50 an hour. At this rate, hiring enough attorneys to staff initial bail hearings would cost something like $28 million, counting administrative costs.

Some of Maryland’s rural counties have fewer than 30 attorneys in their bar associations. Dorchester County’s has just 23.

Fores said that when a defense attorney isn’t available, the defendant might face an unfair choice between waiving the right to counsel and waiting in jail overnight. He believes this will just perpetuate the “constitutional crisis” Maryland has struggled with for several years.