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Senate passes bill undoing Judiciary’s bail-reform rule

Maryland’s rules on setting bail and other pretrial conditions are relatively liberal but are not applied that way, Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe says. “In practice, amounts of money are [selected] randomly,” he said. “Setting of bail is really all over the map in Maryland.” (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation that would block a pending Maryland Judiciary bail-reform rule by lifting its requirement that judicial officers give preference to non-financial conditions for a defendant’s pre-trial release.

With the Senate’s 29-18 vote, attention shifts to the House of Delegates, where Senate Bill 983’s fate is uncertain. An aide to House Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, said Wednesday that he was unavailable to comment on the legislation heading toward his panel.

Opponents, including Maryland’s chief public defender and attorney general, said the pending rule is a better way to ensure that presumed-innocent defendants are not assessed impossible-to-afford bails.

“We are hopeful that the House will kill the bill and allow the court rule to go into effect,” Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe said Wednesday. “The purpose of the rule is to ensure people are not detained pretrial simply because they are poor.”

He added that SB 983 would preserve the status quo when bail reform is needed to protect indigent defendants.

The Judiciary’s rule is “the first step toward reform,” DeWolfe said.

The bill was introduced in response to the Judiciary’s rule that will – in the absence of a superseding law – require district court commissioners and judges beginning July 1 to prefer imposing other pre-trial conditions on defendants before considering bail. These preferred options would include requiring defendants to wear ankle bracelets with homing devices, report periodically to a court officer or be subjected to drug tests.

Supporters of SB 983 call the bill necessary to preserve judicial officers’ discretion to assess the pre-trial condition they believe appropriate – be it bail or another option – to ensure the specific defendant’s attendance at trial.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said during floor debate on the bill Tuesday that imposing a legislative or regulatory preference for or against bail – as the Judiciary’s rule would do – undermines “the crux of judicial discretion.”

 

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh spurred the rule last fall when he wrote legislators that judicial officers likely violate defendants’ constitutional due-process rights, as well as their privilege against excessive punishment, in assessing bail in excess of what they can afford.

Frosh said Wednesday that the Judiciary’s rule discouraging bail is better than than SB 983, which he said would permit judicial officers even to assess bail, albeit a high one, when the defendant presents a risk to the public if released before trial.

“The Judiciary was very careful in crafting the rule,” Frosh said. “If someone is a threat to public safety, they ought to be held in jail without bail.”

Under SB 983, judicial officers who conclude a defendant can be released before trial would be required to “impose on the defendant the least restrictive pretrial conditions that are reasonably necessary to ensure” his or her appearance at trial and the safety of the public. Judicial officers would be barred from giving “preference to a particular condition” and must consider the defendant’s ability to pay a bail if considered as a condition.


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