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Legislative Black Caucus urges defeat of bill to undo Md. bail-reform rule

Delegate Curt Anderson. (File)

Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City. (File)

ANNAPOLIS – The Legislative Black Caucus voted Thursday to press for the rejection of a Senate-passed bill 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 pretrial release.

The influential caucus’ 31-5 vote denouncing Senate Bill 983 comes with less than two weeks left in the General Assembly session, a perennially pressing deadline characterized as much by a rush to pass legislation as a dash to run out the clock on unwanted bills.

Caucus members voiced concern that SB 983 would perpetuate a pretrial system that disproportionately harms low-income minorities who are often too poor to pay even modest bail and must remain in jail. Rejecting the bill, now before a House committee, would enable the Judiciary’s rule limiting the use of bail to go into effect July 1.

“Bail should never be used as a way to keep people in jail because they cannot afford it,” said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County.

Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City, had co-sponsored SB 983’s cross-filed bill in the House, saying judges must retain discretion to assess bail as they see fit. But he said that was before he fully reviewed the Judiciary’s rule and now believes it needs an opportunity to go into effect.

“If there is a problem we can come back next year” and pass a law, Anderson said. “We need the court rule to stand for a year.”

Supporters of SB 983 call the bill necessary to preserve judicial officers’ discretion to assess the pretrial condition they believe appropriate – be it bail or another option – to ensure the specific defendant’s attendance at trial. Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, is the bill’s chief sponsor and was a dissenting vote in Thursday’s caucus poll.

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

The Judiciary’s rule will — in the absence of a superseding law – require district court commissioners and judges to prefer imposing other pretrial 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.

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.

Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe said after the Senate passed SB 983 last week that he hopes “the House will kill the bill and allow the court rule to go into effect.” He added that “the purpose of the rule is to ensure people are not detained pretrial simply because they are poor.”

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