ANNAPOLIS –House Judiciary Committee Chair Joseph F. Vallario Jr. said Friday that the legislative fight to retain the current bail system is “not over yet” – though it likely is for this year.
“It’s not in the drawer,” said Vallario, referring to the metaphorical location for dead legislation. “It’s on the shelf.”
Vallario, D-Prince George’s, made his comments regarding bail’s future as he was walking outside the House chamber.
The comments followed those of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel – as first reported in The Baltimore Sun – and the committee’s vice chair, who said the bill will not reach the House floor this session because leadership has concluded the measure lacks the necessary 71 votes for passage.
“Rather than allow the bill to be voted out of committee and have a resulting ugly, divisive debate and vote on the floor, House leadership made the decision not to allow the bill to reach the House floor,” Kathleen M. Dumais, the vice chair, wrote in an email Thursday night to fellow opponents of the bill.
The measure, Senate Bill 983, would block implementation of a pending Maryland Judiciary rule requiring judicial officers to give preference beginning July 1 to non-financial conditions for a defendant’s pretrial release. These preferred substitutes would include ankle bracelets with homing devices and frequent meetings with court officers.
The rule was prompted by Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh’s concern, stated in a letter last fall to legislators, that bail often results in low-income defendants being remanded to custody before trial simply because they are too poor to pay. Such assessments likely violate constitutional guarantees of due process and prohibitions on excessive punishment, Frosh wrote.
But Vallario and other supporters of SB 983 countered that judges must retain discretion to assess bail if they believe it to be the best and appropriate way to ensure a released defendant shows up for trial.
Sen. C. Anthony Muse, the bill’s chief sponsor, said a judge must remain free to conclude that bail would be less a deprivation of a defendant’s liberties than requiring him or her to wear an ankle bracelet.
“Don’t take options off the table,” said Muse, D-Prince George’s.
Regardless of his bill’s fate, Muse said Friday that the issue of bail, its alternatives and their effect on the liberty interests and financial health of low-income defendants requires more data and study.
SB 983’s apparent end for this year followed a dramatic week in which Frosh rushed from former Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Howard S. Chasanow’s funeral in Greenbelt on Wednesday to testify against the bill before the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis.
“It’s a complex and politically charged issue,” Frosh said of bail reform Friday.
“It’s been a high priority of mine,” he added in explaining his rush to testify. “The rule that the court has adopted, I think it’s an extremely important justice reform and I wanted to make sure it remained intact.”
Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe said Friday that SB 983’s defeat “would be a tremendous move toward reform.”
On Thursday, Vallario gave a strong indication that the bill was in legislative jeopardy when he held the bill rather than let it proceed to a committee vote. As the session does not end until 12 a.m. Tuesday, Vallario could still call for a committee vote in hopes of getting the bill to the floor this year, but Dumais’ email indicated such a move is unlikely.
The vice chair stated she welcomes the coming Judiciary rule as a step toward greater bail reform.
“Although the reform accomplished by the rule may be a baby step – it is the first step in Maryland in a long time,” wrote Dumais, D-Montgomery.
Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer Heather Cobun contributed to this report.